Solar Storms May Disrupt GPS System Signals This Week

Over the weekend there were three large magnetic explosions from the sun, prompting U.S. government scientists to caution users of satellite, telecommunications and electric equipment to prepare for possible disruptions over the next few days. As you read this, we are at the peak of the 11-year solar cycle. So drivers should double-check their GPS system, and watch where they’re going.

Solar storms this week could affect communications and global positioning system (GPS system) satellites and might even produce an aurora visible as far south as Minnesota and Wisconsin. Usually the aurora borealis, called the northern lights, are limited to northern latitudes, but the energy of this storm’s colliding energized particles may broaden the display.

“The magnetic storm that is soon to develop probably will be in the moderate to strong level,” said Joseph Kunches, a space weather scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, a division of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. “This will be a two or three out of five on the NOAA Space Weather Scale,” said Kunches.

The increasing frequency of solar flares happen when energy stored in twisted magnetic fields, usually above sunspots, is suddenly released. The result is a burst of radiation across the spectrum, from radio waves to x-rays and gamma rays.

Solar activity has caused minor disruptions in the past. In 1989, a solar storm took down the power grid in Quebec, Canada, leaving about six million people without power for several hours. The largest solar storm recorded took place in September 1859, when communications infrastructure consisted of mostly telegraph equipment. That storm caused a giant aurora that was visible as far south as the Caribbean Islands.