Solar activity increases, can severely disable equipment

Solar activity increases, can severely disable equipment

The activity of the sun is increasing. Photo: EPA/Mark A. Garlick

The activity of the sun is increasing. More and more eruptions occur in the sun. These can cause disturbances in the Earth, which can severely affect satellites, radio waves, and the power grid. The current solar cycle appears to be rising faster than expected, says researcher Elko Dornbus, who studies space weather at KNMI.

According to him, this may mean that “solar activity in the coming years will also be higher than in the previous period, which was relatively light.” Especially in the last month, researchers have seen many sunspots, where volcanic eruptions occur. “Now they don’t have serious consequences on Earth,” Dornboss says. But researchers realize that space weather could cause problems in the future.

A new solar cycle begins at the Sun every eleven years. From a quiet period, solar activity increasingly rises to its peak. Then it decreases again and eleven years after the starting point, solar activity returns to a minimum again. Currently, the Sun is still at the beginning of its cycle.

Severe space weather

Extreme space weather hasn’t really happened in recent decades. “We don’t know exactly how our current technology can withstand intense solar activity.” The year 1859 entered literature as the year of intense solar activity. Dornbus explains that “researchers are still analyzing this. For example, a measuring station in Rome measured very large fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field. This could now cause huge problems in the power grid.” Governments and companies around the world want to prepare for such an event.

In November 2015, Sweden’s air traffic control radars were disrupted, among other places, due to solar activity. And then the airspace was closed for more than an hour.” In extreme cases, part of the radio communication could be cut off for days.

Health problems

Space weather does not cause any health problems for people on Earth. “In extreme cases, airline passengers may be exposed to radiation, as much as during hospital x-ray examinations. Astronauts outside of the atmosphere should be careful, this is dangerous for them,” Dornbus says. KNMI can now also issue warnings for severe space weather, so government and critical sectors can prepare.

A lot of solar activity can also cause the aurora borealis in the polar regions. “In 1859, about the same time as measurements in Rome, people even saw the Northern Lights in the Caribbean,” Dornbus says.

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