Sunspot Activity Expected To Disrupt GPS, Cell Phones, Power Grid

Solar Cycle 24 began last week, kicking off magnetic storms and strong solar winds that will likely disrupt power grids, satellite communications, GPS, cell phones, and ATMs.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 8, 2008

2 Min Read

PORTLAND, Ore. — Solar Cycle 24 began last week, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A violent sunspot started the new 11-year long solar season, creating a "space climate" of magnetic storms and strong solar winds that will likely disrupt power grids, satellite communications, global positioning systems, cellphones and even automated teller machines.

"We're advancing a new field—space climate," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David L. Johnson, director of the National Weather Service.

NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center is predicting the space climate for the new solar season by issuing warnings and alerts, updated every three hours, on its Web site. "Forecasts are critical for the nation's ability to function smoothly during solar disturbances," said Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Jr., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator.

The new sunspot--No. 10,981 since NOAA began numbering them on January 1972--is the harbinger of the new solar season because it is located in the Sun's northern hemisphere, which is historically where new sunspots appear at the beginning a new cycle. (Sunspots around the Sun's equator usually indicate the end of the cycle). The new season will build intensity over the next five years, likely peaking around 2012, forecasters said.

"This is an early omen of solar storms that will gradually increase over the next few years," said NOAA solar physicist Douglas Biesecker.

The latest solar flare appeared at 27 degrees North, and had the negative polarity, which is indicative of new solar cycles, according to the NOAA. Despite its appearance in the northern hemisphere, NOAA expects the Sun to continue exhibiting equatorial sunspots for at least for a few months until the new cycle prevails. The appearance of polar magnetic fields in the next few months could downgrade NOAA's prediction to a weak Solar Cycle 24. However, the violent start portends an active solar season.

Sunspots and other solar storms affect electronics on Earth by generating intense magnetic fields. The worst solar storms occur when material from the Sun is ejected towards Earth--called a coronal mass ejection (CME). The highly charged material from the solar corona is a plasma consisting primarily of electrons and protons, but it is the coronal magnetic field that causes havoc within the Earth's ionosphere and geomagnetic field.

CMEs cause the most damage when they disrupt the Earth's magnetosphere, compressing it on the day side and extending it on the night side. When the disrupted magnetosphere reconnects, it can generate trillions of watts of power in the Earth's upper atmosphere, resulting in Northern and Southern Lights.

The excess energy can disrupt radio transmissions, damage communications satellites and even take down land-based electrical transmission lines causing power outages.

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