Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems

Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems

Buckle up: The unusual amount of solar activity this week could disrupt some of the most important technologies society relies on.

On Thursday, the US government issued its first geomagnetic storm watch in nearly 20 years, advising the public of “at least five earth-directed coronal mass ejections” as well as sunspots covering an area 16 times larger than the earth itself. A severe geomagnetic storm, or G4, is the second highest grade in the US government’s classification system.

Radiation from this activity began hitting Earth’s magnetic field on Friday and will continue through the weekend, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said. On Friday afternoon, NOAA upgraded the storm to G5 or “extreme”, marking the first such event since October 2003.

NOAA’s warning about extreme space weather suggests the storm could have many impacts on life on earth, possibly affecting the power grid as well as satellites and high-frequency radio communications. This is what it means for technology users.

Communication effects
The solar activity that NOAA is talking about involves the release of energy from the sun that travels through space and eventually reaches Earth.

When that radiation hits the magnetosphere that surrounds the planet, it causes fluctuations in the ionosphere, the upper atmosphere.

Those changes could directly affect satellites and other spacecraft in orbit, changing their orientation or potentially turning off their electronics.

Additionally, changes in the ionosphere can block or degrade radio transmissions trying to pass through the atmosphere to reach satellites. And they can also prevent radio transmissions from successfully bouncing off the ionosphere – which some radio operators typically do to increase their signal range.

Since GPS satellites rely on signals that penetrate the ionosphere, geomagnetic disturbances scientists expect could affect critical technologies used by airplanes, ships and in the agriculture and oil and gas industries. And it could affect shortwave radio transmissions used by ships and aircraft, emergency management agencies, the military and even ham radio operators, all of which rely on high-frequency radio airwaves that NOAA says can be scattered by storms.

“Geomagnetic storms can affect infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, electric power grids, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said in a statement. “SWPC has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.”

What about your cell phone?
Consumer wireless networks rely on different radio frequencies than high-frequency bands, so it seems unlikely that the storm will directly affect cellular service. The GPS feature on your phone also usually uses a combination of pure GPS and cellular tower-based location tracking, so even if the GPS signal is interrupted, phone users may still be able to maintain a rough location fix.

As long as the basic electrical infrastructure supporting the wireless network remains unaffected, even an extreme space weather event will result in “minimal direct impact to public vision radio service and security commercial cellular service … and no first-order impact to consumer electronic devices. , ” according to researchers summarizing the findings of a 2010 study of space weather conducted by NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency outlined a similar report in a 2021 presentation on space weather, finding that line-of-sight radio transmissions are generally unaffected by space weather except in certain situations. The presentation noted several risks for copper cables and land-based telephone lines.

In a slightly different scenario in February, NOAA recorded two major solar flares. But while “cellular network failures were widely reported” at the same time, the agency said, it was “highly unlikely” that beacons played a role in the outage.

On Friday, NOAA officials reiterated that the impact on cellphones this weekend should be minimal, unless there are widespread disruptions to the power grid.

“We haven’t seen any evidence in the past that space weather storms could have an impact now,” Brent Gordon, branch chief of the Space Weather Service for SWPC, told reporters in a conference call. “If the power is not available to them, then yes, of course, impak secondary than that would be great.”

The power grid is potentially at risk
Severe space weather could affect the power grid, according to NOAA, whose warning this week said it anticipated “the possibility of widespread voltage control problems” and that “some protection systems may mistakenly remove key assets from the power grid.”

In 1989, a space weather event caused a massive blackout in Quebec, Canada for over nine hours after geomagnetic fluctuations damaged transformers and other critical equipment.

In October, a stronger-than-forecast extreme geomagnetic storm this weekend caused power outages in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa, SWPC said.

The largest known geomagnetic storm in history, known as the Carrington Event in 1859, caused a telegraph station to explode and burn.

Power grid blackouts can cause cascading effects for communications and other technology, including cell phones. Cellular towers may lose power, as may the data centers that host their websites and information.

However, many wireless carriers already maintain backup power generators and mobile cellular towers that they can use in the event of a natural disaster or other major incident. Redundancy and resiliency are the watchwords of all critical infrastructure providers, so even if the power grid fails, consumers may have to worry more about how to keep their phones charged than whether they can stay online.

As if to underscore the point, the US government’s advice to the public on how to prepare for a space weather event largely resembles the same steps you would take in response to a prolonged power outage.

For example, the government recommends that extra batteries or hand-powered chargers be available for small electronic devices. Officials say you may want to unplug electrical appliances to protect them from power surges and limit your electricity use during solar weather events. You may also want to keep your car’s gas tank at least half full so you don’t have to visit gas stations (which require electricity to operate the pump).

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