The Earth is currently experiencing the impact of a massive solar storm that experts believe may be strong enough to impact aviation and commonly used electronic devices. GPS satellites, power grids, and telecommunications are a few of the areas that might be affected by the storm on the sun. The current solar storm is expected to be the largest in at least five years.
According to NASA, solar storms are caused by solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that erupt from the sun. The flares and CMEs send billions of tons of magnetic radiation hurtling through space and occasionally planets and spacecraft travel through its path. NASA further states that solar activity rises and falls on cycles that last about 11 years. In 2009, NASA forecast that the current solar cycle would peak in May 2013.
Since solar radiation collects around the poles, storms can affect transoceanic flights. Because the Earth is round, the shortest distance between two widely separated points often looks curved when plotted on a flat map. Flights between the United States and Europe or Asia often travel north over the Arctic rather than straight across the ocean, the route that seems obvious on a map. These are called Great Circle routes.
To see the difference, use a globe to measure the distance between two points on different continents, first straight across the ocean and then over the pole. You can also see great circle routes using gcmap.com. On a sample flight from New York to Hong Kong, the great circle route over the North Pole is 8,072 miles and the airplane would fly northwest initially. If the aircraft flew more westerly to follow the flat map route, the distance would increase to as much as approximately half of the 24,900 mile circumference of the Earth. Obviously the flight would last much longer and use more fuel.
Last month, Aviation News reported that Delta Air Lines was diverting flights between its Detroit hub and destinations in Asia. The longer route reportedly only added about 15 minutes to the flight time. United reported diverting one flight and American Airlines said that its operations were not impacted. The increased fuel used for longer routes can add significantly to the cost of operating the flight.
It is highly unlikely that the solar radiation would cause any direct danger to humans, but it could affect electronic navigation and communications. Aircraft on long overwater flights where fuel and navigation are critical would be particularly susceptible to the storms. Even more vulnerable are communications satellites that are not protected from the radiation by the Earth’s atmosphere. Likewise, astronauts in orbit would need to keep to heavily shielded areas of their spacecraft.
On rare occasions, a solar storm can be powerful enough to cause more serious problems on the surface of the Earth. In 1859, a massive solar storm caused telegraph wires to short out, starting numerous fires according to Space.com. This storm made the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, visible as far south as Cuba. A smaller storm cut power to the entire province of Quebec in 1989. As the world becomes more dependent on electronic devices, it is also more vulnerable to solar storms. Advance warning from astronomers allows power grids and satellites to be shut down or otherwise protected from the cosmic radiation.
Solar storms might affect aviation and the world in general in other ways as well. Many scientists believe that solar activity has a direct affect on the Earth’s weather. Often solar inactivity corresponds with colder terrestrial temperatures while periods of high activity on the sun lead to high temperatures and stormy weather on Earth. A NOAA graph of the solar cycle appears to correspond closely to globally averaged satellite-based temperatures. As the sun approaches the height of its cycle, the solar maximum, the Earth may experience warmer average temperatures and severe storms.
For the most part however, most people with not notice any effect from most solar storms. Your flight to China might be marginally longer, but it will just give you more time to admire the Northern Lights while enroute.