Strongest Solar Storm in 6 Years Hits Earth, May Disrupt GPS Signals

This week planet Earth is being bombarded by the strongest solar storm in more than six years.

The sun has released a powerful blast of radiation and charged plasma that could disrupt GPS signals and the electrical grid in the Polar Regions, space weather experts warned. This can interfere with technology on Earth, such as electrical power grids, communications systems and satellites – including satellite navigation (or sat-nav) signals, reported the Miami Herald.

The charged particles are mostly a concern for satellites, but they can also cause communication problems for aircraft traveling near the poles.

The solar flares, which began on Sunday, will hit Earth at three different times this week. The effects of the solar storm are likely to be felt on Earth throughout Wednesday.

The biggest issue is radiation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Colorado.

NASA says the flares have the possibility of damaging satellites, garbling GPS systems, giving astronauts radiation sickness, affecting air travel particularly near the North Pole, blowing transformers and interrupting the electrical grid and corrode above-ground oil pipelines in the North.

The radiation storm is the largest of its kind since 2005 but still ranks only a three on the scale of one to five, enough to be considered “strong” but not “severe”, he added.

“It’s the people who need GPS (global positioning system) accuracy of centimetres who have to worry, not people who want to know if you’re going to turn the car 30 metres ahead,” said Doug Biesecker, a physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Centre.

One positive effect of the solar storm is the ability to see aurorae, or “Northern lights”, farther south than is usually possible.

Solar flares are caused by the sudden release of magnetic energy stored in the Sun’s atmosphere. In an event called a coronal mass ejection (CME), bursts of charged particles are released into space.

In 1972, a geomagnetic storm provoked by a solar flare knocked out long-distance telephone communication across the US state of Illinois. And in 1989, another storm plunged six million people into darkness across the Canadian province of Quebec.

But a spokesman for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (Noaa) Space Weather Prediction Center said the effects of this solar eruption seem likely to be moderate.