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pumpkinpie
2012-Jan-24, 08:58 PM
I work in a science museum and have been contacted by our local news source to explain why Delta is re-routing some of its polar flights during the current geomagnetic storm. I have to come up with a good lay-explanation of why. I know quite a bit about solar/geomagnetic storms, but have never heard of this so I want to make sure I get my facts straight. And know more than the interviewer might ask.

The charged particles enter the atmosphere through Earth's magnetic field at the (magnetic) poles. This happens all the time with the solar wind, but during a storm there is a higher concentration of radiation, which can interfere with radio signals. The basics, right? But is that explanation enough for non-scientific people to understand?

Most news sources are reporting this, without any further explanation:

The threat level to satellites and other hardware in the earth's atmosphere is believed to be manageable, scientists said. However, as a rare precaution, polar flights on Earth are expected to be rerouted, Kathy Sullivan, deputy administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), said today at a Meteorological Society meeting in New Orleans, La., according to Space.com.

I also read this, from a 2006 outburst, which I am skeptical of: (edited: it is referencing the current outburst, not the one in 2006.)

Airlines occasionally reroute transpolar flights as a precautionary measure during big solar storms, with radiation levels heightened near the poles because of the relatively thin ozone layer.

Read more: http://www.foxbusiness.com/news/2012/01/24/delta-reroutes-flights-as-solar-storm-hits-earth/#ixzz1kPY2vVpO


Any guidance, suggestions?

edit: my communications director referred the reporter to someone in astrophysics (we're at a university) who specializes in this, so I'm off the hook. But I'd still like to have an understanding of this!

Rhaedas
2012-Jan-24, 10:00 PM
Aircraft flying that far north use high frequency radio (HF), and storms like this disrupt their communication, obviously not something they want to chance. There is also heightened radiation, probably not a big deal for the infrequent passengers, but pilots have to watch their yearly levels, since they routinely fly above a big part of the protective atmosphere, and radiation exposure adds up. So it's just basic safety.

JustAFriend
2012-Jan-25, 02:19 AM
The magnetic fields that protect us funnel the particles down toward the Earth's poles; that's what causes the aurorae.

Would YOU want to fly through a particle accelerator???

flynjack1
2012-Jan-25, 02:28 AM
Interference with GPS signals may also be a factor, as navigation over polar areas is more difficult if one has to rely on magnetic compass.

Jeff Root
2012-Jan-25, 03:25 AM
The "holes" in the ozone layer around the poles (mainly the
south pole) allow more ultraviolet light to get through, but have
no effect on electrons, protons, or other ions which comprise
the particle radiation from the Sun in solar storms.

-- Jeff, in Minneapolis

Jeff Root
2012-Jan-25, 03:31 AM
What I don't understand is why a sheet of aluminum (such as
the skin of an aircraft) isn't enough to stop electrons and protons.
Are they energetic enough that they blast their way through, like
much more energetic cosmic rays do?

-- Jeff, in Minneapolis

tusenfem
2012-Jan-25, 10:04 AM
It is not only the charged particles that are are important here. A strong CME also comes with its associated magnetic field and this will change the Earth's magnetic field. Strong changes can happen and these can and will induce currents in any wiring in e.g. airplanes, when they are flying at high latitudes. Basicall, the hull of the airplane will be thick enough to block most particles. This in combination with the already mentioned interruption of communications and/or GPS will give the companies reason to reroute the planes.

pumpkinpie
2012-Jan-25, 03:36 PM
What I don't understand is why a sheet of aluminum (such as
the skin of an aircraft) isn't enough to stop electrons and protons.
Are they energetic enough that they blast their way through, like
much more energetic cosmic rays do?

-- Jeff, in Minneapolis

Thanks for the confirmation that the ozone hole has nothing to do with it!

pumpkinpie
2012-Jan-25, 03:38 PM
It is not only the charged particles that are are important here. A strong CME also comes with its associated magnetic field and this will change the Earth's magnetic field. Strong changes can happen and these can and will induce currents in any wiring in e.g. airplanes, when they are flying at high latitudes. Basicall, the hull of the airplane will be thick enough to block most particles. This in combination with the already mentioned interruption of communications and/or GPS will give the companies reason to reroute the planes.
Great lay-person explanation. It's something I knew in concept but couldn't think of a simple way to explain it. Thanks!

pumpkinpie
2012-Jan-25, 03:38 PM
It is not only the charged particles that are are important here. A strong CME also comes with its associated magnetic field and this will change the Earth's magnetic field. Strong changes can happen and these can and will induce currents in any wiring in e.g. airplanes, when they are flying at high latitudes. Basicall, the hull of the airplane will be thick enough to block most particles. This in combination with the already mentioned interruption of communications and/or GPS will give the companies reason to reroute the planes.
Great lay-person explanation. It's something I knew in concept but couldn't think of a simple way to explain it. Thanks!