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Are Alaska's aurora borealis more danger than dazzle?

  • Author: Laurel Andrews
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published October 10, 2012

Solar storms are best known for leading to brilliant aurora borealis, like those that danced over Alaska skies earlier this week.

Without solar storms, northern lights like these, filmed at Olnes Pond north of Fairbanks on Monday, wouldn't be possible.

But solar storms also pose dangers that scientists at work in the European Arctic are racing to understand.

On the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, researchers have commenced an "urgent investigation" to understand the effects of solar storms on global positioning satellites (GPS).

A solar storm begins with a sudden explosion on the sun's surface that's equivalent to billions of nuclear bombs. Storms are usually accompanied by a coronal mass ejection, recently called a "plasma blob" by the National Weather Service, which creates northern lights when the charged particles strike Earth's magnetic field.

Scientists have long known that solar storms cause electrical problems. But why does solar weather distort Earth's ionosphere? Scientists can't yet fully explain the mechanics that cause disturbance to GPS transmissions passing through the ionosphere on the way to receivers at ground level. Meantime, airplanes continue to avoid northern lights as much as possible, often following flight patterns and routes south of the Aurora Oval. Just last year, a solar flare disrupted communications in China, and in the U.S., Congress debated about whether the nation's power grid should be backed up by transformer-sized surge protectors.

Northern lights affect your smartphone GPS?

At the Svalbard research station, effects of space weather on Arctic communications was measurable even on a calm day, with GPS receivers off by as much as 3 meters, according to the BBC.

A significant solar storm can cause GPS inaccuracies measured in the tens of meters.

Svaldbard was chosen for its isolation from electronic pollution, making it "the best place" to study aurora's effects on communication systems, Professor Dag Lorentzen told the BBC. Researchers fire radio beams into the ionosphere, mimicking the effects of a solar flare in order to measure solar interference. They hope to develop a system to forecast the effects of space weather on communications systems.

The research is all the more pressing given recent increase in traffic northern climes, and the effect solar storms could have on navigational equipment as more people head north.

Read more from the BBC, and more about solar flares.

Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)

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