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


Fasten your seat belts: An unusual amount of solar activity this week could disrupt some of the most important technologies that society depends on.

On Thursday, the US government issued its first extremely dangerous decision Watch the geomagnetic storm For nearly 20 years, the public has been advised of “at least five coronal mass ejections directed toward Earth” as well as sunspots covering an area 16 times larger than the Earth itself. A severe geomagnetic storm, or G4, is the second highest magnitude in the US government Classification system.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said radiation from this activity will begin hitting Earth’s magnetic field on Friday and continue through the end of the week.

Severe space weather monitoring conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicates that the storm could lead to numerous impacts on life on Earth, possibly affecting the power grid as well as satellite and high-frequency radio communications. Here’s what that means for technology users.

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

When this radiation hits the magnetic field surrounding the planet, it causes fluctuations in it Ionospherea layer of the upper atmosphere.

These changes can directly affect satellites and other spacecraft in orbit, causing them to shift or change direction. Potentially knocking Their electronics.

Furthermore, changes in the ionosphere can prevent or reduce radio transmissions that attempt to pass through the atmosphere to reach satellites. They can also prevent radio transmissions from successfully bouncing off the ionosphere, which some radio operators typically do to increase the range of their signals.

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Since GPS satellites rely on signals that penetrate the ionosphere, the geomagnetic disturbance that scientists expect could affect this important technology used by ocean-going aircraft and ships and in the agriculture, oil and gas industries. It may affect Shortwave radio broadcasting Used by ships, aircraft, emergency management agencies, the military, and even radio operators, all of whom rely on… High frequency Radio waves that NOAA says could be scattered by the storm.


The sun shines brightly over Korla, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China, on May 10, 2024.

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

Consumer wireless networks rely on different radio frequencies than the high-frequency band, so it seems unlikely that the storm will directly impact cellular service. The GPS features on your phone also use a combination of pure GPS and cell tower-based location tracking, so even if GPS signals are disrupted, phone users may still be able to keep Determine the approximate location.

As long as the essential electrical infrastructure that supports wireless networks remains unaffected, even an extreme space weather event should result in “minimal direct impact to line-of-sight commercial radio and cellular services for public safety…and no first-order impact to electronic equipment.” Consumerism,” according to the researchers summary Results of a 2010 study of extreme space weather conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency submitted a similar report in Presentation 2021 Regarding space weather, it has been found that line-of-sight radio transmission is generally unaffected by space weather except in specific cases. The presentation pointed out some of the risks related to copper cables and landline telephone lines.

In a slightly different scenario in February, NOAA observed two Major solar flares. But despite “widely reported cellular network outages” around the same time, the agency said it was “highly unlikely” that flares played a role in the outages.

On Friday, NOAA officials confirmed that the impact on cell phones this weekend should be minimal to none, unless there are widespread disruptions to the power grid.

“We haven’t seen any evidence in the past that a space weather storm could impact that now,” Brent Gordon, head of SWPC’s space weather services branch, told reporters on a conference call. “If the energy is not available to them, then yes, certainly, the secondary impacts of this will be significant.”

Extreme space weather could put power grids at risk, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which Warn This week it was said to expect “potential widespread voltage control problems” and that “some protection systems may mistakenly take key assets off the power grid.”

In 1989, a space weather event led to a catastrophe Widespread power outages in Quebec, Canada For more than nine hours after geomagnetic fluctuations damaged transformers and other important equipment.

A severe geomagnetic storm in October, stronger than the one expected this weekend, led to power outages in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa, SWPC said.

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The largest known geomagnetic storm in history, known as the Carrington Event of 1859, ignited telegraph stations and set them on fire.

Power grid outages can have ripple effects on communications and other technologies, including cell phones. Cell towers may lose power, as can data centers that host websites and their information.

However, many wireless providers already maintain backup power generators and mobile cell towers that they can deploy in the event of a natural disaster or other major incident. Redundancy and resilience are watchwords for all critical infrastructure providers, so even if the power grid goes down, consumers may have to worry about how to keep their phones charged rather than whether they can stay connected to the Internet.

As if to emphasize the point, the U.S. Gov Advice to the public How to prepare for a space weather event is very similar to the same steps you might take in response to a prolonged power outage.

CNN’s Ashley Strickland contributed for this report.

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