Can Solar Flares Interrupt GPS

Valentine Day Solar Flair Courtesy NASA

Are you aware that 99.86% of all the mass in our entire Solar System is one object alone – the Sun. So, when things happen there, because of our high-technology-based reliance on radio waves of all usable frequencies the effects are felt here on earth. The average day on the surface of the Sun measures about 10,000-degrees Fahrenheit.

Solar flares are, essentially, an explosion in the Sun’s atmosphere. When that happens, the surrounding solar atmosphere gets heated up to over 20,000,000-degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 20 million degrees vs  the 10 thousand degrees on the average day.

This rips the surrounding atoms to pieces and sends electrons, protons and heavier ions shooting into space at the speed of light.  This wave of atomic materials, called the coronal mass ejection (CME), spans the entire electromagnetic spectrum at all wavelengths, from simple radio waves to extremely high energy gamma waves. This, as scientists are fond of saying, is the problem.

After the initial blast of radiation that comprised the CME, a huge cloud of charged particles is headed toward Earth. Last month, a huge solar flare occurred on Monday, Feb 14, and its cloud of charged particles arrived on Feb 18. The flare, the largest in years, disrupted radio communications in southern China, according to the China Meteorological Administration. NASA confirmed that this solar flare was the largest in years and the event sparked predictions of heightened activity on the northern hemisphere of the sun. “X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms,” disrupting telecommunications and electric grids, NASA said. (Solar flares are classified as A, B, C, M or X, with each class having a peak 10 times greater than the preceding one.) NASA also said the flare caused “sudden ionospheric disturbances” in the atmosphere above China.

Scientists have pointed out that activity on the sun is now ramping up ahead of an expected solar maximum around 2013.

A magnetic storm caused by a solar eruption in 1973 plunged six million people into darkness in Canada’s eastern-central Quebec province. Even ten to twelve years ago, during the last solar flare peak, GPS technology was expensive and far less common than it is today. Now, GPS is virtually everywhere – boats, cars, integrated into EPIRBs, pocket-sized for hikers, etc.  We now know that, based on recent studies, GPS receivers are unexpectedly vulnerable to bursts of radio noise produced by solar flares. When we were at the last peak, GPS was just much less common and the problems were minor in relative scope and attention.

The intense bursts of radio noise, caused by the charged particles shooting out from the solar flare at the speed of light, appear to peak in the 1.2 and 1.6 gigahertz bands used by GPS. Normally, radio noise in these bands is very low, so receivers can easily pick up weak signals from orbiting satellites.

This may also be a problem for aircraft navigation as the FAA uses reference GPS receivers on the ground for air traffic control. Although planes can and do fly without GPS, outages will force the FAA to increase the distance and timing between aircraft, delaying flights. GPS is also used to synchronize power grids and cell phone networks. And, of course, we use GPS in our boats (and cars.) We could increase the strength of GPS signals but that would require redesigning GPS satellite hardware and software. I think solving the “Y2K” software problem was easier.

And didn’t we just turn off LORAN?

So, what DO we do? I think it is what we DON’T do. Don’t throw out your paper charts, your handheld compass and parallel rulers. And practice your pen-and-pencil piloting techniques. To take a course on Navigation go to BoatSafe.com.

For more on Solar Flares visit NASA.

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Filed under Boat Operation, Boating News, Boating Safety, Navigation, Sailing News, The Boating Environment

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