Space weather and your technology

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

We’re all attached to our cellphones. Did you know that the Sun has the potential to disrupt your service?

The Sun, the Earth, and our solar system are all part of an electromagnetic system. Our star emits charged particles, radiation, plasma, and dynamic magnetic fields. As these variable particles and electric currents impact Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere, and interact with Earth’s own magnetic fields; they cause our systems to change- sometimes drastically. We use the term ‘space weather’ to describe the dynamic, ever-changing space environment caused by the Sun’s interaction with our planet.

Solar activity affects you; as our society becomes increasingly reliant on technology, the Sun has an ever-greater potential to affect us… and not just in good ways.

solar wind magnetosphere
An artist’s rendering of solar wind coming towards the Earth and its magnetosphere. / Courtesy NASA: Camilla Corona SDO

When considering what ill effects solar activity can have on humans, radiation might jump to mind. Astronauts can be exposed to high radiation if they’re outside of (or high in) the Earth’s atmosphere when a solar storm strikes. There also exists a real, though greatly-lessened, risk of particle radiation exposure for high-altitude airplane travelers.

Particles expelled from the Sun by solar flares and by Coronal Mass Ejections can be extremely disruptive. As these particles approach and strike the magnetosphere they can disrupt satellite functions we rely on, and seriously damage expensive satellite electronics. If space weather does nothing more than cause satellite signal scintillation, it soundly hampers communication and navigation devices like the Global Positioning System. Don’t get rid of your paper maps just yet.

Add radio wave disturbance and radar interference to satellite disruption, and space weather becomes even more troublesome. Cellular-service loss seems grim to our society, and distorted radio signals cause problems, but the potential for radio blackouts is even worse. That could mean no contact with en-route airplanes. Aviation and maritime systems would be disrupted around the world, as airplane routes are shifted (mostly away from the poles) to avoid areas with high risk of signal disturbance and mariners compensate for impeded communications.

Space weather, additionally, can induce electromagnetic currents which alter Earth’s electric field. The Earth’s field then electrifies conductive networks on the surface of the planet. As the electric field changes dynamically in response to space weather, it can have negative effects. Unprepared electric power transmission grids can become overloaded with electricity and damaged. We face blackouts. Induced currents can also create fuel leaks by causing corrosion in oil and gas pipelines. Other networks which can host potentially destabilizing geomagnetically induced currents include physical telephone (and telegraph) networks, and undersea communication cables.

solar flare
Image of a solar flare. / NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory – Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA)

Our Sun cycles through periods with differing levels of activity. The last solar max, or period of greatest solar activity, occurred in 2011. We face another projected solar maximum in 2013 or 2014. That means more sunspots, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and prominence eruptions. Also, it means more charged particles being flung away from the Sun and spiraling outward, being influenced by the Sun’s magnetic field. This energetic particle radiation- proton and electron particles (for the most part)- forms the solar wind. When the solar wind intercepts Earth and Earth’s near-space, we can experience the negative effects discussed above. We can also be treated to the lovely Aurora borealis (and its lesser-known southern counterpart, the Aurora australis) as charged particles take a dive at our atmosphere, pulled at most strongly by Earth’s magnetic sphere in the polar regions.

So, space weather has real effects on human society, technology, and our economy. How do we ready ourselves to deal with it?

Later: a look at how NASA and NOAA (and a rubber chicken!) are making advances and acting as your Space Weather predictors.

More on space weather: Space Weather Predictions

More on space weather: My Teacher the Android Space Girl

aurora borealis
Aurora Borealis / (public domain)

FrontierScientists attended the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2011.

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

Weather In Alaska


  • Space Weather Workshop’ NASA
  • ‘Living With A Star’ Space Weather Center
  • ‘Camilla Corona SDO – STEM Ambassador’ Space Weather, NASA