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Advances in modern technology have brought new innovations into the communications industry which not only have made communication faster and smoother for consumers but have in effect enabled a more precise and accurate means of navigation for cars, airplanes and ships.
It must be noted though that like all technological instruments such systems are vulnerable to eventual malfunctions. While there are literally a plethora of different ways in which communication systems could potentially break down this paper will explore the possibility of the interaction of communication systems with various forms of space weather phenomena, in this case solar flares.
Solar Flares and Communication Systems
In their work examining the effects of space weather phenomena and communication systems Afraimovich, Demyanov, Gavrilyuk, Ishin and Smolkov (2009) explain that solar flares in particular have been known to disrupt High Frequency (HF) radio communications and various types of satellite signals creating periods of information blackouts (Afraimovich et al., 2009).
For example, on March 24, 1940 a “great” geomagnetic storm rendered inoperative 80% of all long-distance telephone connections out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Electric service was temporarily disrupted in portions of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, as well as Quebec and Ontario, Canada (Fisher, 2003).
Various studies examining the effects of space weather, particularly geomagnetic storms, which are caused by solar flares, have shown that on average solar weather disrupts not only high frequency communication signals but also has the potential to damage electrical equipment as well (Burch, 2004). For example, from the 13th to the 14th of March 1989 a severe geomagnetic storm caused a system wide power failure in Quebec, Canada, resulting in the loss of over 20,000 megawatts (Fisher, 2003).
The blackout cut electric power to several million people; the estimated time from the onset of the problem to a system collapse was about 90 seconds and high frequencies were virtually unusable worldwide. It was even seen in the case of a Japanese communications satellite which lost half of its dual-redundant command circuitry as well as a NASA satellite dropping 3 miles (4.8 km) in its orbit due to the increase in atmospheric drag caused by a geomagnetic storm (Fisher, 2003).
Additionally, Fisher (2003) notes that “the frequency navigation signals used by maritime and general aviation systems (Loran-C) may experience outages on the sunlit side of the Earth for many hours during periods of geomagnetic storms or solar wind causing loss in positioning” (Fisher, 2003).
The reason behind this is the resulting free electrons generated by solar weather which can and often do damage systems that are inherently dependent on electricity. These free electrons build up in the electrical systems subsequently causing an electrical discharge which overloads the electronics and causes them to shut down or even subsequently destroy themselves (Burch, 2004).
Solar Flares and Transport Systems
While planes are sufficiently protected from the effects of solar flares through multiple redundancy systems and insulated instruments the fact remains that RNAV systems located on the ground as well as GPS satellites located in space can be affected and most often are by geomagnetic storms caused by solar flares (Anselmo, 1998).
This results in not only the potential for a complete blackout for external sources of navigational data but presents a potentially hazardous situation for pilots since it affects their ability to properly determine where the plane is in relation to their destination (Thomas and Rantanen, 2006).
Examining the Current System of Communication
What must be understood when examining today’s system of communication is that it is inherently reliant on the use of particular radio frequencies in order to facilitate communication (Burch, 2004). These frequencies utilize alternating currents to carry radio signals both to their point of destination and back again.
It must be noted though that the basis of all radio technology is the use of electromagnetic waves in order to carry signals back and forth which utilizes the air itself as a conductor for the signal (Burch, 2004). Unfortunately, due to the inherently electrical nature of these signals and the fact that they utilize air as a medium of communication this leaves the process vulnerable to interruptions from large sources of free electrons which disrupts the entire process.
Nordwall (1997) explains that various forms of space weather phenomena ranging from geomagnetic storms, solar radiation storms, and solar wind all interact with the atmosphere differently however they are a source of free electrons which causes a sufficient enough interaction with the atmosphere that they can in effect cause complete radio black outs on HF frequencies (Nordwall, 1997).
In fact it has already been noted that a sufficiently powerful geomagnetic storm can cause a complete HF frequency blackout on the entire sunlit side of the Earth for a number of hours which would not only affect sea and land based methods of communication but would also affect the ability of pilots to contact air traffic controllers at their intended destination which could result in devastating airplane collisions (Afraimovich, 2009)
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What can be done to prevent issues?
On the other hand it must also be noted that substantial solar weather phenomena does not occur on a regular basis. Based on the observations of Fisher (2003), there have been only 15 or so occurrences of solar weather phenomena that have actually caused significant communication and electronic errors within the past 60 years.
It must be noted though that various scientists have stated that the sun is currently entering an active phase in its solar cycle and as such this increases the likelihood of the development of various cases of solar weather phenomena.
Since technological innovations take time for proper implementation new processes and procedures would need to be created in their place till such a time that technology has advanced to such a degree that solar weather phenomena does not present itself as a problem for communication systems or as a significant danger to aviation safety.
Taking this into consideration since it will take time for technology to “catch up” so to speak, the best tool that can be utilized is to encourage awareness among the general populace so that they can be aware of the various problems that may occur in the immediate future as a direct result of increased solar flare activity.
Afraimovich, E. L., Demyanov, V. V., Gavrilyuk, N. S., Ishin, A. B., & Smolkov, G. A. (2009). Malfunction of satellite navigation systems GPS and GLONASS caused by powerful radio emission of the Sun during solar flares on December 6 and 13, 2006, and October 28, 2003. AMS, (5), 13. Retrieved from Google Scholar.
Anselmo, J. C. (1998). Space Storms Threaten Commercial Satellites. Aviation Week & Space Technology, 149(18), 28. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Burch, J. L. (2004). The Fury of Solar Storms. Scientific American Special Edition, 14(4), 42. Retrieved from Google Scholar.
Fisher, J. (2003). Integrating Space Weather and Meteorological Products for Aviation. AMS (12),1.Retrieved from American Meteorological Society.
Nordwall, B. D. (1997). Solar storms threaten GPS reception. Aviation Week & Space Technology, 147(22), 61. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Thomas, L. C., & Rantanen, E. M. (2006). Human factors issues in implementation of advanced aviation technologies: a case of false alerts and cockpit displays of traffic information. Theoretical Issues in Ergonomics Science, (13), 4. Retrieved from EBSCOhost