GPS technology worldwide faces a serious potential threat from a little known phenomenon – solar storms. Although relatively rare, a strong solar storm could have devastating effects on both the power grid and global positioning systems.
Solar storms or flares are geomagnetic events that originate from the sun’s surface in the form of a coronal mass ejection (CME). This term refers to the eruption of more than a billion tons of solar plasma from the sun’s surface. When a CME is oriented toward Earth, it can cause serious problems by interacting with the magnetic field that surrounds the planet. This interaction generates substantial voltage that can overload power grids and travel on any man-made metal path. Transformers are designed to shut down to protect the system at the first sign of an increase in voltage. This safeguard would result in the loss of power to a wide area of customers, but the system could be slowly restarted over a few days. If the storm is too powerful or the surge too overwhelming, the transformers could potentially overheat and destroy the system completely.
Examples of the Phenomenon
Solar storms are classified based on a five-point scale. The first two levels (G1 and G2) are fairly common and typically only cause small fluctuations in power. The most serious levels (G4 and G5) occur infrequently but have the potential to cause serious damage. Storms of this magnitude would cause complete power blackouts and interrupt GPS device operation for several days. A series of these storms occurred in the fall of 2003. The effect of the events included disabled transformers in England, South Africa, and Sweden. A slightly earlier event struck Quebec in March of 1989, leaving 6 million people without power for as long as nine hours.
The most obvious way to prevent these devastating effects is an early warning system. Presently, government agencies in both the U.S. and Canada monitor solar activities and alert power companies to potential storms. A satellite positioned far into space is tasked with detecting incoming storms, but it is coming to the end of its life and even at its best may only provide a thirty-minute warning of an approaching event. An effective warning system would enable systems to switch to a low voltage safe operating mode that could prevent wide spread outages.
Although these solar events are relatively rare, their potential effects on power supplies and GPS tracking are devastating. It is important to determine wise methods to protect against a threat that could so cripple our technologically dependent culture.Google+