At Delta Air Lines’ (DAL) operations center in Atlanta, meteorologists do more than monitor the usual wind, rain, and snow. They also keep a close eye out for a less common but potentially more dangerous phenomenon known as space weather. The sun’s eruptions can send billions of tons of superheated, electrically charged gas hurtling through the solar system. When these clouds hit the earth’s magnetic field, they can result in geomagnetic storms that disrupt electric power and communications systems.
Space weather can play havoc with air-to-ground communications. Delta and other airlines reroute dozens of flights a year to avoid affected areas. It’s “nearly always minor enough that flight time is not significantly impacted,” says Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant. Transpacific flights between Asia and the East Coast of the U.S. are the most likely to be affected. Don’t expect the pilot on such a flight to come on the intercom and announce the plane is turning to avoid a blast from outer space. Instead, he’ll say it’s because of weather, Durrant says, “which is an accurate characterization.”
Most people have no idea that combating the effects of geomagnetic storms is a part of doing business for industries worldwide. With enough warning time, operators of New York’s power grid can alter voltage and reduce transfers across the system to protect against the strong ground currents generated by the storms. Companies that rely on GPS services may delay drilling, mining, or land surveys when satellite communications are disrupted by space weather. But corporations and the federal government may not be prepared for a severe geomagnetic storm—akin to a 100-year flood—that could fry electrical equipment and wipe out power to major cities for weeks or longer.