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Solar storm causes ionization-related headaches for airlines

January 25, 2012 |  9:53 am

A gigantic solar storm occurring on the surface of the sun -- and the torrent of charged plasma particles that it unleashed on Earth -- have been causing headaches for airlines. But relief is on the way, a NASA research scientist says.

The problems began Sunday night when radiation bombarded the Earth within hours of a large explosion on the sun's surface. Spikes in space radiation mean problems for polar flights, Antti Pulkkinen of NASA told The Times on Wednesday.

Delta has rerouted eight transpolar flights, Bloomberg reports, and Qantas and Air Canada also shifted the path of some flights following the solar flare.  Flights diverted included several between cities in the Midwest, such as Detroit, and Asian hubs, according to IB Traveler.

"Energetic charged particles" that make up space radiation "prefer to funnel to our polar regions," said Pulkkinen, who is also an associate professor at the Catholic University of America.  "When particles funnel to polar regions, they hit molecules in the Earth's upper atmosphere and cause so-called ionization."

That extra ionization "degrades" high-frequency radio, Pulkkinen said, which airlines use to communicate in the region.

The last solar storm of this magnitude occurred in 2005.  But a period of peak solar activity is approaching next year, so huge solar storms will become even more frequent.

"As we ramp up to the solar maximum next year, this sort of storm will become normal,"  Doug Biesecker, a physicist with NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., told The Times' Amina Khan.

But as for this storm, "space radiation levels are already rapidly declining," Pulkkinen said, "and the polar upper atmosphere is expected to recover within the next day or two."

Calls to Delta representatives on Thursday morning were not immediately returned.


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