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Risks To The Aviation Industry From Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections

Every now and then an article appears in the world’s media warning of the risks to IT infrastructures due to solar storms, but what are the real risks to the aviation industry from solar flares? Are the risks exaggerated as any risk so often is in a media industry that habitually catastrophises every scientific assessment?

Well, on this subject they a right to warn us. The global aviation industry faces several specific risks from solar storms and flares, primarily due to their potential impact on communication, navigation systems, and radiation exposure. These risks, while generally well-managed, can have significant implications, especially during intense solar activity.

5 Risks to the Aviation Industry from Solar Flares

1. Communication Disruption:

  • High-Frequency (HF) Radio: Solar flares can cause ionospheric disturbances, leading to the degradation or loss of high-frequency radio communication, which is crucial for transoceanic and polar routes where VHF (Very High Frequency) communication is not feasible.
  • Satellite Communications: Solar storms can interfere with satellite signals, affecting both communication and navigation.

2. Navigation System Errors:

  • GPS Accuracy: Solar storms can cause errors in GPS signals, affecting navigation accuracy. This is particularly critical for aircraft relying on precise GPS data for en-route navigation and landing approaches.

3. Radiation Exposure:

Risks To The Aviation Industry From Solar Flares
  • Increased Radiation Levels: During solar storms, the levels of cosmic radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere can increase, especially at high altitudes and near the poles. This presents a risk for flight crew and passengers, particularly on long-haul flights over polar routes.
  • Aircrew Exposure Limits: Airlines sometimes monitor solar activity to ensure that aircrew radiation exposure remains within regulatory limits. In extreme cases, this may involve rerouting flights to lower altitudes or more southerly routes.

4. Operational Disruptions:

  • Flight Rerouting and Delays: To avoid areas with high radiation levels or poor communication, flights may need to be rerouted, leading to delays and increased operational costs.
  • Satellite Anomalies: Some aircraft systems rely on satellite data (for weather, communication, etc.). Anomalies in satellite function due to solar activity can impact these systems.

5. Flight Control and Safety Systems:

While direct impacts on the aircraft’s electronic control systems due to solar activity are rare, the increased reliance on digital systems theoretically raises the risk of anomalies during intense solar events.

Mitigation Strategies:

  • Monitoring and Forecasting: Aviation authorities and airlines closely monitor space weather forecasts to anticipate and mitigate the impacts of solar activity.
  • Regulatory Guidelines: There are guidelines and protocols for airlines to manage the risks associated with solar storms, such as rerouting flights or adjusting flight schedules.
  • Technological Solutions: Aircraft and communication systems are designed with some level of shielding and redundancy to mitigate the effects of solar activity.

While the overall risk to aviation from solar storms is managed effectively through monitoring, preparedness, and mitigation strategies, the potential for disruption, especially in communication, navigation, and increased radiation exposure, remains a significant concern for the industry. The evolving nature of both solar activity and aviation technology requires continuous attention and adaptation to these risks.

Understanding Solar Flares and Storms:

  1. Solar Flares: These are intense bursts of radiation coming from the release of magnetic energy associated with sunspots. Flares can affect all layers of the solar atmosphere, altering the electromagnetic fields on Earth.
  2. Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs): These are significant releases of plasma and accompanying magnetic field from the solar corona. They can eject billions of tons of coronal material and carry an embedded magnetic field that is stronger than the background solar wind interplanetary magnetic field (IMF).

Impacts on IT Networks and Technologies:

Impacts On It Networks And Technologies:
  1. Satellite Operations: Solar storms can disrupt the operation of satellites by damaging their electronics or affecting their trajectory due to changes in Earth’s atmosphere.
  2. Communication Systems: High-frequency radio communications, which are often used for aviation and maritime purposes, can be disrupted by solar activity.
  3. GPS Accuracy: Solar storms can affect the accuracy of GPS systems, impacting navigation and timing services.
  4. Power Grids: Geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) can affect electrical power grids, potentially leading to voltage instability or power outages.
  5. Data Centers: While generally well-protected, extreme solar events could potentially impact the infrastructure critical for data centers.

Recent Past Incidents:

  • 2003 “Halloween Storms”: A series of solar flares and CMEs affected satellite operations, caused a power outage in Sweden, and led to the rerouting of flights to avoid communication blackouts.
  • 1989 Quebec Blackout: A powerful geomagnetic storm caused a nine-hour outage in Quebec, Canada, illustrating the potential for solar activity to disrupt power grids.

Risk Assessment:

  • The risks are real but vary in severity. The likelihood of a catastrophic solar storm, similar to the Carrington Event of 1859, occurring in any given year is low, but not negligible.
  • Advances in forecasting and mitigation strategies have improved, allowing for better preparedness and response.
  • The infrastructure in some regions may be more vulnerable due to older designs or lack of appropriate shielding and backup systems.

While the media may at times exaggerate the frequency or severity of these events, the risks posed by solar storms and flares to IT networks and other technologies are genuine and warrant attention and preparedness. The impact of such solar events in the recent past, while not catastrophic, demonstrates the potential disruptions they can cause.

Understanding the 11-Year Solar Cycle:

The 11-year solar cycle is a periodic change in the Sun’s activity and appearance, including variations in the number of sunspots, solar flares, and other solar phenomena. This cycle is an essential aspect of the Sun’s behavior and has significant implications for space weather, which can, in turn, affect Earth-based technologies and systems.

  1. Sunspot Cycle: The most visible feature of the solar cycle is the number of sunspots, which are temporary phenomena on the Sun’s surface. They appear darker because they are cooler than the surrounding areas. Sunspots are indicators of magnetic activity.
  2. Solar Maximum: This is the period within the solar cycle when the number of sunspots reaches its peak. During solar maximum, solar activity, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), is more frequent and intense.
  3. Solar Minimum: This is the phase when sunspot numbers are at their lowest. Solar activity is generally less intense, but significant events can still occur.

Predictability and Impact on Earth:

  • Predictability: While the solar cycle is generally predictable in terms of its duration, predicting the exact timing and intensity of solar maxima and minima is more challenging. Additionally, the specific timing and magnitude of individual solar events within the cycle are not easily predictable.
  • Impact: During solar maximum, the increased number of solar flares and CMEs can lead to more frequent and severe geomagnetic storms, affecting satellites, communications, power grids, and navigation systems on Earth.

Solar Cycle in the 2020s:

  • The solar cycle that started in late 2019 is Solar Cycle 25. As solar cycles typically last about 11 years, Solar Cycle 25 is expected to peak around 2025. However, there is some variability, and the peak could occur a few years before or after this estimated midpoint.
  • Most at Risk Years: Based on the typical behavior of solar cycles, the period around the solar maximum, which for Solar Cycle 25 is expected around the mid-2020s, would be the time of heightened risk for stronger solar activity and its associated impacts. This would suggest increased vigilance and preparedness for solar storms from approximately 2024 to 2026, though significant events can occur at any time during the cycle.

Conclusion

While it’s generally understood that the mid-point of a solar cycle (around the solar maximum) is a period of increased solar activity and thus increased risk for Earth-based technologies and systems, predicting the exact timing and intensity of this activity is challenging. For the 2020s, the years around the middle of the decade are likely to be the most at risk, but continuous monitoring of solar activity is essential for accurate forecasting and preparedness.

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