QUESTION

How can solar storms affect navigation?

It’s not only storms on the high seas that threaten the smooth operation of vessels; solar storms do, too. But what is it, exactly? 


 

On September 10, scientific observers detected a huge explosion on the surface of the sun, whose particles were heading straight us. These explosions occur regularly and they generate a plasma cloud. Plasma is one of four states of matter, the others being solid, liquid and gas.

Plasma has the distinction of having a very strong magnetic field. When it comes into contact with Earth’s magnetism, it disrupts it. This causes northern and southern lights, and disrupts radio communications, satellites and power distribution systems.

On March 9, 1989, an unusually violent solar storm, also known as a magnetic storm, caused a power blackout that lasted 9 hours throughout Quebec.

On September 10, scientists assumed that part of the plasma cloud would affect Earth’s northern hemisphere over the following few days, as it takes three days for the plasma to reach our planet.

However, this storm proved to be a level two on a scale of five, so fairly weak. In due course, its presence appeared mainly in the production of northern lights, which are lovely and not in the least harmful.

A stronger storm could have disrupted telecommunications. Take GPS, the global positioning system based on signals transmitted from satellites. A level five solar storm could throw off locations by a dozen metres, or even cause total signal loss. This consequence could not only harm navigation, but also a host of sophisticated tools that use GPS, for example automated farm machinery.

This is one reason that today’s seafarers still learn how to use old navigation instruments such as the sextant and the magnetic compass, which are still found on vessels.