Brewing solar storm looms over technology

GPS technology is integrated into the operation of nearly every piece of farming equipment Finch Services Inc. sells in Maryland and Pennsylvania, helping farmers ensure they don't cover the same ground twice when scattering seeds or spraying fields.

Without a satellite signal, the machinery would be rendered useless, said Trevor Prior, a Finch salesman in Westminster.

Users of the location-finding system — found in tractors and cars and military missiles — could soon find themselves lost, depending on the weather in space.

The sun goes through an 11-year cycle during which sunspots and flares peak and decline. The next peak is expected in 2013, and the radiation that may shower Earth could wreak havoc on satellite communications, radio waves and the electricity grid. (It also could create spectacular aurora borealis — the Northern Lights).

A variety of applications of GPS technology — such as managing cellular telephone signals and tracking planes in the air — could be affected, said Anthony Russo, director of the National Coordination Office for Space-Based Positioning, Navigation, and Timing.

In the worst case, solar flares could disrupt all the electronic systems we've come to rely on in daily life. A large burst of radiation from the sun, for example, could knock out power transmission systems for months, grid experts warn.

That has emergency management officials planning for catastrophe, and scientists doing their best to predict phenomena that are unpredictable and offer little warning.

"I'm not sure the average emergency responder understands the complexity and the potential" of solar weather's impact on Earth, said Michael Fischer, director of operations for the Maryland Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). "The risk is high enough that it needs to be on our radar."

When a solar flare occurs, the sun spews clouds of electrons, ions and atoms known as coronal mass ejections. The charged particles reach Earth within a day or two, bathing satellites in a wave of radiation and causing geomagnetic storms that can send dangerously large pulses of energy through the air, water and ground to power transformers, overloading and potentially destroying them.

Bursts of radiation were expected to cause disruptions in March and May, though no significant effects were reported. Preparations are under way in case future incidents are more severe.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is expanding its use of equipment that monitors the natural electric currents that travel through water and the Earth's crust, said Nitin Sem, a senior planning analyst for the utility, who leads efforts to train transmission workers for solar weather's effects on the grid. Information on currents in the ground is needed because little is known about the real risks solar storms pose.

There have been some notable power outages related to solar weather. In 1989, one storm cut power to 6 million people in Quebec for nine hours, for example. But there have been few to learn from in the United States, Sem said.

"Grid behavior is not understood well enough to predict solar storm damage accurately," said Michael Gregg, a University of Washington oceanographer who helped write a 2011 study on solar storms.

Gregg, Russo and others spoke at a May conference in Washington on solar weather.

Should a damaging solar storm strike, there will be little warning. NASA's models can provide a notice of, at most, about 30 hours, said Scott Pugh, a Department of Homeland Security representative on a federal "smart grid" task force.

An aged NASA satellite, the Advanced Composition Explorer, provides a warning 20 to 45 minutes ahead of solar particles reaching Earth. Its replacement, the proposed Deep Space Climate Observatory, is scheduled for launch in 2014.

Despite the uncertainty, Maryland officials plan to have solar storm-related emergencies integrated into county first-responder training programs by the fall, Fischer said.

MEMA will also begin encouraging responders to build solar storm kits that would include back-up satellite phones, computers and other communication devices stored in metal boxes that would provide protection from a solar storm-related surge, he said.

Meanwhile, the technology that could be disrupted by solar storms only grows more integrated into daily life. Precise statistics on the use of GPS technology in Maryland farming weren't available, but it is useful in fields that are small relative to those in the Midwest, said Prior, the farm equipment salesman.

With a lot of turns to make, a GPS-guided autopilot means a lot of time saved, as well as money spent on seeds and herbicides, Prior said.

"It's used a good bit, and in another year, it's going to be everywhere," he said.


Solar weather activity is expected to reach a maximum in 2013, posing risks to satellite technology and the electrical grid. Learn more at or