Solar flares can cause communication problems

Adriene Hill Jan 24, 2012

Adriene Hill: The biggest solar storm in more than six years is blasting the earth with radiation today. But it’s not as scary as it sounds. The solar flares can disrupt communications here on earth.

For more we go to Andrew Coates. He’s a professor of planetary science at the University College of London. Good morning.

Andrew Coates: Morning.

Hill: So can you explain why these solar flares are a problem?

Coates: The types of problems it can cause are upsets in computer memories and problems with computer systems on space craft and with images on space craft. It’s not a huge event, but it’s something certainly which is worth being aware of.

Hill: And what are the risks for me? Is there anything I might notice today?

Coates: We depend on spacecraft for some many things. I mean, weather forecasting, of course, but also the GPS positioning on the earth’s surface, and communications — radio and TV communications. And of course, there’s lots of material transmitted by satellites. And so, some of those things might have effects; it’s difficult to actually forecast that. But we’ll know what it gets here.

Hill: And I’ve got one more question for you. I understand these solar flares can affect carrier pigeons and I was wondering if you could explain that to me.

Coates: Yeah, the carrier pigeons depend on the earth’s magnetic fields for steering. They don’t have GPS of course, but they actually use the magnetic field for getting from A to B. So because during these events, when the earth’s magnetic fields are effected, it can deviate by sort of 5 to 10 degrees, so that can actually be enough to confuse carrier pigeons. It’s sort of an interesting event that can happen with solar flares.

Hill: So let’s hope no one’s sending either of us messages by pigeons today.

Coates: Absolutely, yeah.

Hill: Professor Andrew Coates, thanks so much.

Coates: Thank you.

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