How Geomagnetic storms affect GPS, Power grids, pipelines, astronauts, even flyers
Know the far-reaching impact of geomagnetic storms from radiation threat to flyers on planes, knocking out power grids to influencing climate.
The sun is a gargantuan dynamic ball of fire, and its actions can affect us here on Earth. One of the ways it does this is by spewing out enormous amounts of energy, which hits the Earth and sparks geomagnetic storms. A geomagnetic storm is a disturbance in Earth's magnetic shield, which in itself protects all life from the harmful rays on the Sun. These storms happen when the sun shoots out shock waves or magnetic clouds that collide with our magnetic field. The most enormous one on record is the Carrington storm from 1859 that actually sparked fires in telegraph offices. Let's dive into how these solar storms impact various aspects of our lives via exploratorium
1. Satellites and Spacecraft
Solar activity can mess with satellites and spacecraft, directly and indirectly. The sun's high-energy particles can fry sensitive microchips, causing chaos. These particles can also mess with electronics and damage solar panels, and and other sensitive equipment, which is dangerous for life-support systems on spacecraft like the International Space Station. Indirectly, space weather can slow down and even crash satellites as it heats up Earth's upper atmosphere, thereby increasing drag that pulls them downwards. Also read: Powerful solar flare erupts on the Sun, causes blackouts on Earth; solar storm feared
2. Radio Communication
Shortwave radio, used by the military and for long-distance broadcasts, depends on the ionosphere to bounce signals. Geomagnetic storms shake up the ionosphere, making radio communication unreliable.
Most GPS systems we rely on depend on satellite signals. Geomagnetic storms mess with the ionosphere's density, making GPS signals arrive too early or too late, causing inaccuracies. Animals with internal compasses might also lose their way during these storms.
4. Electric Power Transmission
Geomagnetic storms can create electric currents in power system cables and transformers. These currents can damage equipment and cause power failures, like the big one in Quebec in 1989. Knowing about these storms in advance helps power companies prepare as they can shut them down well ahead of time.
These storms can also mess with pipelines, corroding them rapidly and leading to costly repairs.
6. Astronauts and High-Altitude Travelers
Radiation and particles from the sun can harm living tissue. Astronauts are especially at risk because they don't have Earth's protective shield. High-altitude flights during these storms can also expose crew and passengers to more radiation.
The sun's changes can even affect our climate. Its 11-year activity cycle, known as the solar cycle, makes it shine a bit brighter during its peak. Historical events, like the Maunder Minimum in the late seventeenth century, show how solar activity can cause periods of global cooling, like the Little Ice Age.