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Strong Solar Storm Disrupts Flight Routes

On Monday, Delta altered the path of some its flights due to a solar storm (also known as a geomagnetic storm), reports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Bloomberg Businessweek, flights operated by Air Canada and Qantas have also been rerouted because of the storm.

The solar storm that arrived this week is the biggest one to hit the planet in more than eight years. Solar storms can hinder GPS and radio signals and the communications systems of planes. They’ve even been known to cause disruption to power grids.

But flyers have little to fear. We spoke with Rodney Viereck, a scientist with the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, who told us that solar storms don’t pose a serious threat to flight safety. There is a risk that passengers could be exposed to radiation when flying near solar storms. However, the level of exposure from a geomagnetic storm is no worse than the radiation one would sustain when going to the doctor and getting X-rays.  

During this most recent storm, only a handful of planes were rerouted south, adding about 15 minutes of travel time to the Delta flights. If a solar storm is severe enough, said Viereck, flights diverted far from the course of their original route might have to stop and refuel; however, such an event is very rare.

Why do flights need to change course during solar storms? According to Viereck, when energetic protons that are discharged from the sun collide with earth’s upper atmosphere, they can knock out radio communication and make it impossible for airlines to stay in touch with dispatchers on the ground. Communication interference due to a solar storm is most likely to happen on flights that take polar routes. The flights that Delta rerouted were originally scheduled to fly over the North Pole.

The sun has an 11-year solar cycle (much like seasons on earth). Currently, we’re going into “solar maximum season,” and we can expect more solar storms of this magnitude “once a year for the next four or five years,” Viereck said.

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