Should I Be Worried About It?
You shouldn’t worry, but you should be aware that there’s a possibility severe space weather in the near future will disrupt your electric service, your cell phone and the navigation system in your car. It might make it impossible to get cash from an ATM and could even make it more dangerous to fly.
Those ominous sounding predictions sound like the making of an urban legend. But strangely enough they?re all true, thanks to the dawn of Solar Cycle 24.
A solar cycle is a normal, recurring 11-year-period of magnetic storms and strong solar winds. The cycle starts gradually, increases in intensity and then slowly fades out.
Solar Cycle 24 began in Jan. 2008 when a reverse polarity sunspot–an area of highly organized magnetic activity–appeared on the sun. Scientists worldwide expect the number of sunspots and solar storms will gradually increase in the next few years, reaching a maximum by 2011 or 2012.
That?s normal. But it?s also a potential problem because of our growing dependence on highly sophisticated, space-based technologies. Solar weather generates intense magnetic fields that can affect a wide range of electronic devices on Earth, from power grids and satellites to satellite dependent wireless devices.
So a solar storm can damage or destroy communications satellites and power transformers, potentially stopping routine activities such as talking on cell phones or getting money from ATM machines over a large part of the globe. At any given time, half the earth is facing the sun, and therefore vulnerable to solar weather extremes.
It?s a significant issue. But it?s also important to keep it in perspective. Contrary to what you?re likely to hear in the next few years, solar storms will not destroy your personal electronic devices. At worst, explained Bill Murtaugh, a space weather forecaster with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, you?ll temporarily lose service.
Solar storms can affect air travel: they can knock out communication on flights traveling over the North or South Pole. But the storms won?t cause planes to fall from the sky.