Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems | CNN Business (2024)

Programming note: Tune in to CNN NewsNight: Solar Storm, hosted by Abby Phillip and Bill Weir, tonight from 10 p.m. to 12 a.m. ET. For the latest on the massive solar storm, head over to CNN’s live coverage.

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Buckle up: An unusual amount of solar activity this week could disrupt some of the most important technologies society relies on.

On Thursday, the US government issued its first severe geomagnetic storm watch in nearly 20 years, advising the public of “at least five earth-directed coronal mass ejections” as well as sunspotscovering an area 16 times wider than the earth itself. A severe geomagnetic storm, or G4, is the second-highest grade in the US government’s classification system.

Radiation from this activity began to hit the earth’s magnetic field on Friday and will last through the weekend, said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On Friday evening, NOAA upgraded the storm to G5 or “extreme,” marking the first such event since October 2003.

NOAA’s warning of extreme space weather suggests the storm could trigger numerous effects for life on earth, possibly affecting the power grid as well as satellite and high frequency radio communications. Here’s what that means for technology users.

Communications impacts

The solar activity NOAA’s talking about involves the release of energy from the sun that travels through space and eventually reaches Earth.

When that radiation hits the magnetic sphere surrounding the planet, it causes fluctuations in the ionosphere, a layer of the upper atmosphere.

Those changes can directly affect satellites and other spacecraft in orbit, altering their orientation or potentially knocking out their electronics.

Moreover, the changes to the ionosphere can block or degrade radio transmissions trying to pass through the atmosphere to reach satellites. And they can also prevent radio transmissions from successfully bouncing off the ionosphere — which some radio operators normally do to increase the range of their signals.

Since GPS satellites depend on signals penetrating the ionosphere, the geomagnetic disturbance scientists are expecting could affect that critical technology used by planes, ocean-going vessels, and in the agriculture and oil and gas industries. And it could affect shortwave radio transmissions used by ships and aircraft, emergency management agencies, the military and even ham radio operators, all of whom rely on the high frequency radio airwaves that NOAA says could be scattered by the storm.

Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems | CNN Business (2)

The sun is rising with a flare over Korla, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, China, on May 10, 2024.

“Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth’s surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center said in a release. “SWPC has notified the operators of these systems so they can take protective action.”

What about your cellphone?

Consumer wireless networks rely on different radio frequencies than the high frequency band, so it appears unlikely that the storm will directly affect cellular service. The GPS features on your phone also typically use a mix of pure GPS and cellular tower-based location tracking, so even if GPS signals are disrupted, phone users may still be able to maintain a rough location fix.

So long as the underlying electrical infrastructure that supports wireless networks remains unaffected, even an extreme space weather event should result in “minimal direct impact to public safety line of-sight radio and commercial cellular services … and no first-order impact to consumer electronic devices,” according to researchers summarizing the findings of a 2010 study of extreme space weather conducted by NOAA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency outlined a similar report in a 2021 presentation on space weather, finding that line-of-sight radio transmissions are generally not affected by space weather except in specific situations. The presentation did note some risks for copper cables and telephone lines based on land.

In a slightly different scenario in February, NOAA noted two major solar flares. But despite “widely reported cellular network outages” around the same time, the agency said, it was “highly unlikely” that the flares played a roleinthose blackouts.

On Friday, NOAA officials reiterated that the impact to cell phones this weekend should be slim to none, unless there are broad disruptions to the power grid.

“We’ve not seen any evidence in the past that a space weather storm could impact that now,” Brent Gordon, chief of the Space Weather Services branch for SWPC, told reporters on a conference call. “If power is not available for those, then yes, certainly, the secondary impacts from that would be great.”

The power grid is potentially at risk

Severe space weather can jeopardize power grids, according to NOAA, whose alert this week said to expect “possible widespread voltage control problems” and that “some protective systems may mistakenly trip out key assets from the power grid.”

In 1989, a space weather event led to a massive blackout in Quebec, Canada for more than nine hours after geomagnetic fluctuations damaged transformers and other important equipment.

In October, an extreme geomagnetic storm stronger than the one predicted for this weekend led to power outages in Sweden and damaged power transformers in South Africa, the SWPC said.

The largest known geomagnetic storm in history, known as the Carrington Event of 1859, caused telegraph stations to spark and catch fire.

A blackout of the electrical grid could have cascading effects for communications and other technologies, including cellphones. Cellular towers might lose power, as could the data centers that host websites and their information.

Still, many wireless carriers providers already maintain backup power generators and mobile cellular towers that they can deploy in the event of a natural disaster or other major incident. Redundancy and resiliency are watchwords of all critical infrastructure providers, so even if the power grid did fail, consumers might have to worry more about how to keep their phones charged rather than whether they could stay online.

As if to underscore that point, the US government’s advice to the public on how to prepare for a space weather event largely resembles the same steps you’d take in response to an extended power outage.

For example, the government recommends keeping extra batteries or a hand-powered charger available for small electronic devices. Officials say you may want to disconnect electric appliances to protect them from power surges and limit your electricity usage during a solar weather event. You may also want to keep your car’s gas tank at least half-full so that you do not need to visit a gas station (which needs electricity to operate the pumps).

CNN’s Ashley Strickland contributed to this report.

Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems | CNN Business (2024)

FAQs

Why tonight’s massive solar storm could disrupt communications and GPS systems | CNN Business? ›

Several coronal mass ejections — waves of solar plasma that the sun belched out earlier this week — are in transit toward Earth. Those so-called CMEs are what's causing the aurora and disruption on Earth. Some communications could be interrupted, as well as GPS, power grids, spacecraft and satellite navigation.

Do solar storms affect GPS? ›

Strong solar storms can impact life in space and on Earth. GPS and communications satellites, and even the power grid can be interrupted.

Why do solar flares interfere with communication and power systems? ›

Impacts on technology and infrastructure

Power Grids: Strong geomagnetic storms can induce currents in power lines, causing transformers to overheat and potentially leading to widespread power outages. Satellite Communications: Charged particles can damage satellite electronics and disrupt communication signals.

How would a large geomagnetic storm affect communication? ›

Solar storms cause damage to communication systems.

During geomagnetic storms some radio frequencies are absorbed and others are reflected, leading to rapidly fluctuating signals and unexpected propagation paths (reproducing or multiplying in unplanned directions). Public and amateur radio is frequently disrupted.

What would be disrupted in a solar storm? ›

This storm poses a risk for high-voltage transmission lines for power grids, not the electrical lines ordinarily found in people's homes, Dahl told reporters. Satellites also could be affected, which in turn could disrupt navigation and communication services here on Earth.

Can solar storms affect cell phones? ›

What about your cellphone? Consumer wireless networks rely on different radio frequencies than the high frequency band, so it appears unlikely that the storm will directly affect cellular service.

Does weather affect GPS signal? ›

Atmospheric Disturbances: Atmospheric conditions play a significant role in GPS signal interference. Factors such as severe storms, high levels of precipitation, and turbulence can disrupt the transmission of signals from satellites to receivers on aircraft.

Can intense solar wind disrupt radio and television communications? ›

“Geomagnetic storms can impact infrastructure in near-Earth orbit and on Earth's surface, potentially disrupting communications, the electric power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations,” NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center said in a release.

Do solar flares disrupt TV reception? ›

Be aware, however, that programs being recorded during solar interferences will likely be affected. When your TV service is disrupted on these days and during this time, you're likely experiencing a solar interference. You don't have to do anything to restore your service but wait a few minutes for the event to end.

What would protect electronics from a solar flare? ›

Flexi Says: To protect electronics from solar flares, you can use Faraday cages, which are enclosures used to block electromagnetic fields. These cages work by distributing the charge or radiation around the cage's exterior, thus providing internal protection.

Does NASA solar flare affect humans? ›

However, at the surface of the Earth we are well protected from the effects of solar flares and other solar activity by the Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. The most dangerous emissions from flares are energetic charged particles (primarily high-energy protons) and electromagnetic radiation (primarily x-rays).

What do solar storms do to humans? ›

Perhaps less well-known are the impacts such solar events have on human health. But periods of intense solar activity can disrupt the body's circadian rhythm, nervous system, heart rate and blood pressure — even if they're not visible to the human eye in the form of an aurora, researchers say.

How does a solar storm affect technology? ›

Solar storms disrupt satellites and other tech

The NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center reported power grid irregularities, loss of high-frequency communications and GPS disruptions. This included the GPS used in John Deere precision-farming tractors in the US, according to reports.

What was the worst solar storm in history? ›

The most famous example came in 1859 during the worst solar storm in recorded history, called the Carrington Event. As well as stunning auroras, the storm caused sparks to fly off of telegraph stations.

What would happen if a strong solar flare occurred today? ›

A severe solar storm could cause malfunctions on satellites closer to Earth. In extreme cases, they might crash into other objects in space or the atmosphere. The undersea fiber optic cables that are the backbone of the global internet could also be at risk of outages lasting from a few minutes to several hours.

How likely is a Carrington event? ›

Based on the readings, the researchers concluded that Carrington-level events likely occur once every 100 to 1000 years. However, without knowing exactly how powerful the event was, scientists can only make educated guesses about how common solar outbursts of its kind may be.

Can solar storms affect satellites? ›

They can also affect our satellite operations and GPS navigation capabilities. Additionally, astronauts in space have to be extra careful during these events, particularly if they are doing a spacewalk.

Is there a problem with GPS satellites today? ›

Presently the signal is stable. NAVCEN: The GPS Operations Center reviewed the GPS Constellation and Control Segment, there are no known anomalies that might affect GPS signal integrity at the time and vicinity of the reported problem.

Do solar storms affect technology? ›

Solar storms can be dangerous to our technologies

If Earth happens to be in the path of a CME, the charged particles can slam into our atmosphere, disrupt satellites in orbit and even cause them to fail, and bathe high-flying airplanes with radiation. They can disrupt telecommunications and navigation systems.

Do solar flares affect data? ›

A storm of that magnitude in the present day, hitting the earth squarely could indeed cause a great deal of damage with widespread electrical disruptions, blackouts, data loss on unprotected devices and extended downtime to our much-loved online world.

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