Airline Diverts Aircraft During Solar Storm

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Our planet is having an exciting few days. After being hit by a coronal mass ejection (CME) on Sunday, the sun unleashed another Earth-directed flare and CME, which also hit the magnetosphere on Tuesday at around 10 a.m. EST.

At time of writing, the NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center announced that our planet was undergoing a low-level (G1) geomagnetic storm. Aurorae are now likely at high latitudes.

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Geomagnetic storms can be responsible for communications blackouts and power grid surges on the ground. In response to the potential risk, Delta Airlines have diverted some of its aircraft away from polar routes.

“We are undergoing a series of solar bursts in the sky that are impacting the northern side of the world,” said Delta spokesman Anthony Black on Tuesday.

“It can impact your ability to communicate,” he said. “So, basically, the polar routes are being flown further south than normal.”

It is believed the disruption will only impact “a handful” of flights, adding 15 minutes to journey times. Routes between Detroit and Asia are affected.

In addition to Delta, United Airlines reported on Monday that one flight had to be diverted due to an earlier storm, but there are no diversions in place for the current storm. American Airlines told Reuters that none of their routes have been affected, but they were monitoring space weather conditions.

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The concern for aircraft is not necessarily solar radiation, it is the secondary effects of geomagnetic storms that can pose an acute problem.

Update: After a Twitter conversation with Barbara Tomlinson (@beachton) concerning the increased radiation risk to passengers and crew on aircraft, I realized the NOAA class the current solar storm as an “S3″ solar radiation storm. The advisory states that in this case “passengers and crew in high-flying aircraft at high latitudes may be exposed to radiation risk.” Although the decision to divert aircraft away from high-latitude regions hinge on communication concerns, there may be long-term health implications for air crews frequently flying at high altitudes during solar storms.

Solar activity can cause dynamic changes to the Earth’s upper atmosphere, and during geomagnetic storms, ground-to-air communications can become unpredictable. It is therefore not surprising that some airlines will choose to take precautionary measures to avoid losing contact with their aircraft.

As the current period of intense solar activity continues toward this solar cycle’s maximum in 2013, we can expect more precautions like this being taken.

Image credit: Corbis

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