Global communications networks weather strong solar storm


Solar storms last week had the telecommunications industry on edge, but discernable impacts have been minimal.

By: Brad Randall, Broadband Communities

A solar storm over the weekend that provided spectacular viewing of auroral displays as far south as Florida has had only minor impacts on the telecommunications industry.

The event, which caused National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center to issue geomagnetic storm watches and warnings, was the first extreme geomagnetic storm to impact the Earth since Halloween of 2003.

The October 2003 solar storms are remembered for resulting in power outages in Sweden, and damaged transformers in South Africa, according to NOAA.

During the height of this weekend’s solar storm, on May 10, both AT&T and T-Mobile were monitoring the events but did not predict any serious disruptions, due to having networks that don’t rely on high-frequency bands, according to published CNN reports.

Elon Musk, the CEO of Starlink, wrote that Starlink’s satellites were under pressure during the solar storm on the company’s website, but SpaceX has since reported that “all Starlink satellites on-orbit weathered the geomagnetic storm and remain healthy.”

In the aftermath of this weekend’s solar storm, the Associated Press reported that federal agencies like The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Energy have experienced no significant issues due to the geomagnetic event, which persisted through the weekend into May 11 and May 12.

Understanding the solar storm threat to communications

Geomagnetic storms often occur when plasma from coronal mass ejections (CMEs) pelt the Earth, according to NOAA. CMEs are usually caused by solar flares, which are large eruptions of electromagnetic radiation on the Sun, NOAA’s website stated.

Though most CMEs pose little to no threat to Earth, strong Earth-directed ones can threaten communications networks and electrical grids.

The strongest geomagnetic storm on record, an incident known as the Carrington Event, occurred in September of 1859. According to NOAA, impacts of the Carrington Event included excess currents that were produced on telegraph lines. The currents shocked technicians and, in some cases, set telegraph equipment on fire.

“Today, a storm like that would cause significant impacts on our technology,” NOAA’s website stated.

Another notable solar storm incident occurred in 1989, when a geomagnetic storm was responsible for triggering a blackout in Quebec, leaving millions without power for hours, according to NOAA.

The sunspot responsible for the weekend’s solar storm, known as Region 3664 to scientists, has since produced the strongest solar flare registered in the current solar cycle, a flare ranked with a magnitude of X8.7.

Solar cycles, which scientists say average 11 years in length, represent fluctuations of activity on the sun. Scientists expect the current solar cycle, the twenty-fifth since data began being collected, to peak in 2025.

Solar activity remains active

While Region 3664 slowly disappears from sight behind the Sun’s southwest limb, a new sunspot, from just beyond the Sun’s eastern limb, produced a X2.9 flare today. NOAA said the CME associated with that flare, and the X8.7 recorded on May 14, will likely not have major impacts on Earth.

According to NASA, X-class flares are the biggest flares within the agency’s classification system for solar flares.

NOAA’s website described the threat that CMEs associated with strong solar flares can pose to communications networks.

“Solar flares sometimes produce energetic particles (protons and electrons) that stream to Earth and are captured by Earth’s magnetic field,” the agency’s website stated. “These particles can damage satellites used for commercial communications, global positioning, intelligence gathering, and weather forecasting, and cause high-frequency radio blackouts in the polar regions.”

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