It is likely that you rely more on GPS technology than you are aware. If you use your smartphone to “check in” on Facebook or Foursquare, find a decent restaurant when you are traveling, or tag your location on Instagram, it probably wouldn’t be a the end of the world if something happened to disrupt your GPS satellite signal. What if you are a farmer who relies on the autosteer device which we reported on last week? It too relies on the GPS satellites to keep farmers from seeding or fertilizing sections of a field twice, saving them time and money. If the autosteer device were to lose satellite signal, it would ultimately become useless. Smartphone users, the farmers using GPS technology, and even the military could soon face the possibility of a satellite outage thanks to an uncontrollable factor: the weather in space.
The sun is fast approaching the peak of its 11 year cycle of high sunspot and flare activity, expected in 2013. This increased activity means increased radiation, and although it means a stunning display of aurora borealis, it also may have an impact on radio waves, the electricity grid, and the satellites that the GPS technology relies on. Anything that uses GPS technology – airplanes, cell phone signal management, emergency response – could be disrupted, according to Anthony Russo, the director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing.
Preparing for the Worst
No one knows for sure what will be affected by the solar activity, but in the worst case scenario, all electronics we use on a daily basis could become useless. Grid experts say a solar flare could send a large radiation burst that could lead to complete failure of the grid for months. As such, emergency management officials are attempting to plan for a situation such as this, and scientists are trying their hardest to predict this highly unpredictable event.
“I’m not sure the average emergency responder understands the complexity and the potential” of the impact solar weather has on Earth, Michael Fischer said, the director of operations for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). “The risk is high enough that it needs to be on our radar.”
Breaking Down the Solar Flare
As the solar flare happens, clouds of electrons, ions, and atoms are ejected from the surface of the sun, also known as coronal mass ejections. These particles make their way to Earth in only a day or two, soaking the satellites in radiation waves and starting geomagnetic storms that wreak havoc on power transformers with the large pulses of energy traveling through the air, ground, and even water. These pulses could even destroy the transformers.
Michael Gregg, an oceanographer with the University of Washington, lent a hand in writing a study on solar storms in 2011. He said, “Grid behavior is not understood well enough to predict solar storm damage accurately.” In 1989, there was a solar storm that left 6 million people in Quebec in the dark for 9 hours, but here in the US, there hasn’t been much activity to study and learn from.
Should We Be Concerned?
There is really no way to give advanced warning if a solar storm powerful enough to affect the GPS satellites occurs. According to Scott Pugh, the Department of Homeland security’s representative on the federal “smart grid” task force, NASA could only provide about 30 hours of advanced notice in the best case situation. The Advance Composition Explorer, the NASA satellite that detects solar particles, gives a warning anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes before the particles reach Earth. It is due to retire and be replaced with the proposed Deep Space Climate Observatory, expected to launch in 2014.
Maryland officials are looking to have solar storm-related emergency scenarios included as part of the county first-responder training programs by this fall, according to Fischer. MEMA also intends to have responders gather solar storm kits to help them carry on in a solar event – back-up satellite phones, computers, and other important electronic communication devices which are packed into metal boxes. The metal boxes protect the contents from being rendered useless by the dangerous surge in radiation.
It is impossible to tell what, if anything, will be affected by the next peak of solar activity. With so many relying on GPS location devices and apps, it would certainly affect the lives of many. While some will probably be able to live without it, there are those like emergency responders and the military who would be lost without it – literally.