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Can Weak Spots in Earth's Magnetic Field Cause Telephones, Navigation Systems to Crash?

Can Weak Spots in Earth's Magnetic Field Cause Telephones, Navigation Systems to Crash?

Earth's magnetic field has reportedly been undergoing a shift, leading to speculations that one day, the magnetic field anomaly, combined with violent solar flares, may cause satellites and power circuits to black out.

Earth’s magnetic change is undergoing a rather significant change, and it is not simply the natural shift in magnetic flux that occurs all around the planet. Last week, NASA revealed that the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA), the name given to a weak spot of magnetic field activity that hovers somewhere around South America and the South Atlantic Ocean, is undergoing a degree of behavioural change. This is causing the weak spot of Earth’s magnetic field to split into two parts, marking the first time this has ever happened. The spot is also said to be shifting westward, leading to geophysicists and other satellite engineers around the world to scurry for making changes to satellites, network and power equipment operating on Earth.

As part of a statement released last week, NASA said, “Earth’s magnetic field acts like a protective shield around the planet, repelling and trapping charged particles from the Sun. But over South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean, an unusually weak spot in the field – called the South Atlantic Anomaly, or SAA – allows these particles to dip closer to the surface than normal. Currently, the SAA creates no visible impacts on daily life on the surface. However, recent observations and forecasts show that the region is expanding westward and continuing to weaken in intensity. The South Atlantic Anomaly is also of interest to NASA’s Earth scientists who monitor the changes in magnetic strength there, both for how such changes affect Earth's atmosphere and as an indicator of what's happening to Earth's magnetic fields, deep inside the globe.”

So, does this mean that we might face the impact of increased exposure to solar flares with massive power cuts, as well as failure of communications systems and satellite downtime? The answer is two-fold.

Theoretically, we can face cataclysmic blackouts…

…if we did not know as much as we know today. The Earth’s magnetic field, as said before, is responsible for creating magnetic flux that keeps solar particles at bay. Every now and then, our Sun gives out an angry burst of charged particles, which are flung across the solar system. If, say, we did not have the protection of our magnetic field, we would have faced the full impact of the solar winds. This, in turn, would have meant complete exposure to charged solar particles, which cause electronic circuits to reset or malfunction, and at the worst, may even cause permanent damage to electrical setups – such as power circuits of exploratory devices onboard the International Space Station.

In case Earth’s magnetic field weakens heavily, or splits into two (like it is doing right now), the biggest problem to factor in would be for the satellites that help us operate telephonic communications, internet services and even navigation for aircrafts and marine vessels. Without the magnetic flux of Earth’s natural magnetic field, satellites would stand the chance of falling into this blind spot at the wrong time, in which case they may even face permanent damage. Given how expensive and time consuming the procedure is to create an information beaming satellite, this can create serious damage to telecom operators around the world. It may also hamper air and marine traffic, should the navigation satellites suffer an outage.

However, we may know how to save ourselves…

…from such an event where solar flares take out power grids and satellites – leaving the entire world stranded. NASA reports that teams of geophysics, geomagnetic and heliophysics (the study of the Sun) researchers have been actively studying the magnetic field anomaly that has existed for a while. These researchers have constantly monitored the growing SAA, in a bid to predict what may happen to it next and how this would impact our satellite communications. Given how critical satellite-based communications and navigation services are to us, it is this research that will help us learnt how to make satellites falling in the magnetic field route.

The solution to all this will be in making sure that all communication satellites are diverted away from such weak spots in Earth’s magnetic field. If the spot splits into two lobes, engineers will have a more difficult time in diverting the satellites away from two weak field spots instead of one. However, the chances of a complete, worldwide blackout as a result of the combined effect of the weak spot and a powerful solar flare is, safe to say, limited as of now.