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Manage Effects of Solar Storms
By Dan Miller
Friday, May 17, 2024 3:16PM CDT

The historic and GPS-battering solar storm that interrupted planting 2024 like an invisible springtime thunderstorm last weekend may soon return, according to the Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC), headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.

The SWPC is a service of the National Weather Service (NWS), both organized under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). SWPC observes eruptions from the sun -- characterized by intense flares and damaging coronal mass ejections (CME) -- and presents them in plain words.

New Earth-bound CMEs could be on the way again, as the solar troublemaker that causes them, sunspot Region 3664, rotates back into view. "If it holds together, we could see Region 3664 rotate back onto the visible side of the sun in about two weeks," the SWPC wrote earlier this week.

There's nothing farmers can do to stop these storms or avoid their impacts completely, but if they know they are coming, there are actions they can take to manage the storms' effects, according to experts.

SOLAR STORMS' IMPACT ON AG EQUIPMENT

Rebecca L. Bishop, a research scientist in the Space Science and Applications Laboratory at The Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center with headquarters in Virginia, explained how solar storms affect ag data collection.

"It really depends on the data-collection system," she told DTN/Progressive Farmer. "If the data is geolocated using GPS locally, there were two ways it could have been affected. A complete loss of signal lock by the GPS receiver due to extreme noise from the upper atmosphere (primarily nighttime) could have resulted in no location data for an interval of time. Noise introduced by the upper atmosphere (also) could have induced errors in the calculated position."

The amount of error depends both on conditions in the upper atmosphere and the type of GPS receiver technology being used. Some receivers are more robust than others because they use multiple constellations, such as GPS in the U.S. and the Galileo global navigation satellite system maintained by the European Union. But they all do the same thing: They provide what is known as PNT -- positioning, navigation and timing services.

The challenge for agriculture today is that solar storms collide with the reality of modern farming life in North America where a complete loss of precision agriculture technology for an entire season -- highly unlikely due to a solar storm -- could hit yields by 15%-30%.

Autosteer and guidance systems are used to plant more than 50% of the acres devoted to corn, soybeans, winter wheat, cotton, rice and sorghum. The larger the farming operation, the greater the probability that it is highly dependent on satellite positioning.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR AND DEAL WITH SOLAR STORMS

Like a thunderstorm, farmers can't stop geomagnetic storms or avoid their impacts. Given the right conditions, storms the size of the one that occurred last weekend will take down positioning receivers for minutes to hours. That event can occur several times over a few days, like waves reaching shore (a moderate G2 geomagnetic storm reached Earth on May 16, but had negligible impact).

But if farmers know a geomagnetic storm is coming, they may be able to manage around it. They can stop planting and wait for the storm to pass. Or, as Grandpa did, they could grab the steering wheel and just plow through, accepting crooked rows and any planting and data collection inaccuracies that follow.

"It is conceivable that some farmers opted to continue planting without GPS and automated guidance; they've decided to accept crooked rows, wide and narrow middles, no automated row shutoffs," said Terry Griffin, precision agriculture economist at Kansas State University. "But without GPS, the as-planted data (as-sprayed, as-fertilized) cannot be logged onto a map or georeferenced. This isn't just a negative aspect for farm operators -- many seed sales forces and local retail agronomists rely upon these data for upstream use."

In anticipation of any new storm, producers might dig out any row markers and foam markers they have buried in the back of the shed, Griffin suggested, perhaps half-seriously.

Bishop said there are ways farmers might prepare for solar/geomagnetic storms.

"Understand what part of any equipment or data system relies on GPS or radio frequencies (RF), and how resilient that equipment is to RF/GPS noise," she said. "For example, are the GPS receivers in (your) combine single- or dual-frequency receivers? Single-frequency receivers are more susceptible to space weather."

Have a short-term local data backup system, Bishop said. Similar to a commercial security system that records everything and deletes it after a certain time period, data would go to both the cloud and a short-term, local backup system that could be recovered if the connection to the cloud is compromised.

"If this (another solar storm) happens in Kansas about a month from now, we're going to be harvesting wheat," Griffin said. "We can harvest wheat without GPS guidance, but the operator might have to steer the machine and they may not be able to log the yield data."

Here are three actions farmers can take to manage solar events.

-- Sign up for space weather alerts/watches/warnings at NOAA space weather prediction center:https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/…. Note that more typical space weather events affect higher latitudes (e.g., Canada, Alaska).

-- If an issue is noticed with the GPS systems, look at the NOAA alerts or the Navigation Centers civilian GPS outage reports (https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/…) to determine whether the source is environmental or a hardware problem.

-- If there is elevated space weather, and local hardware issues have been ruled out, report the outage to the Navigation Center through online reporting: https://www.navcen.uscg.gov/….

WHAT CAUSES SOLAR STORMS?

The main character in the solar events of last weekend -- and perhaps again in just a few days -- is sunspot Region 3664.

The sun is the main source of space weather. Eruptions of plasma and magnetic field structures from the sunspot regions, CMEs, and sudden bursts of radiation, solar flares, can cause geomagnetic storms.

Radio-frequency-disrupting flares of varying intensities reach Earth at the speed of light. Region 3664 produced an x-ray flare measured at X8.7 on Tuesday (and an X2.9 on Wednesday), the larger of the two is the most severe of this solar cycle. "X" flares top the scale, measuring the intensity of solar flares.

CMEs travel more slowly, taking one to five days to reach Earth. They are rated on a scale from G1 (minor) to G5 (extreme). G5 storms can cause geomagnetic storms when they are directed toward the Earth. They can disrupt communications, the power grid, navigation, radio and satellite operations for days at a time.

Sunspots, such as Region 3664, are dark areas on the sun's photosphere. Humans have been observing them directly since the 1750s. The peak of sunspot activity is known as "solar maximum," and the lull is known as "solar minimum." Maximums and minimums occur on average in 11-year cycles. Earth is approaching the peak of the current solar maximum. It should occur next year, in 2025.

During sunspot maximums, the Earth experiences an increase in the Northern and Southern Lights, and disruptions to radio transmissions, power grids, and numerous GPS-backed technologies.

Sunspot region 3664 is enormous, 17 times the width of the Earth. Fortunately, Earth is a small target. When seen from the sun, Earth is the size of a BB held at arm's length between outstretched fingers. Earth's magnetosphere, ionosphere and atmosphere also shield its inhabitants from most hazardous effects.

Still, a CME can produce a geomagnetic storm, which in turn, can cause anomalies and disruptions to modern conveniences, GPS being only one. According to the SPWC, a March 13, 1989, geomagnetic storm triggered a major power blackout in Canada that left 6 million people without electricity for 9 hours.

The SWPC recorded a series of G4 and G5 storms last weekend, with much of the impact occurring on Friday, May 10, and Saturday, May 11.

"G5 is the most severe rating of geomagnetic storms that NOAA has," said K-State's Griffin. "That's why it was half the country (involved), Canada too. And it was more than 5 minutes. It was hours, all afternoon. It was a big deal. Planters were rolling across the heartland on Friday afternoon, and then they stopped. We're kind of at the mercy of the sun," Griffin added. "There is shielding built into GPS satellites, but on the ground, while these things are harming our GPS receivers, the receivers don't receive a signal."

These storms don't happen every day. They are not seasonal. They may not occur for years at a time, and they could just as well occur during a time when their impact on agriculture is minimal.

"The probability that this happens during planting is low," Griffin said. "But, hey, on Friday (May 10), it happened. My advice is don't panic. Go get an early lunch. But if we're going to have a spring of every other day (solar events) and four-hour delays each time, that gets serious."

Three severe geomagnetic storms have been observed during this solar cycle that began in December 2019. The last G5 was on March 23, 2024.

The last big storm event is known as the Halloween solar storms. These occurred from October into November 2003 and were some of the more intense storms of the space age, G5 CMEs among them. Importantly, the storms occurred late in the season, beyond much -- if not most -- of the harvest and in days when GPS-dependent navigation and mapping were not as common, perhaps on just 10% of farms. That series of storms generated the largest solar flare ever recorded by a NOAA satellite -- as strong as X45.

It is important, Bishop said, that the nation has a good understanding of how space weather affects ag equipment users so that investment can be made appropriately to ensure resiliency of technical systems to space weather.

Dan Miller can be reached at dan.miller@dtn.com

Follow him on social platform X @DMillerPF


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