Experts say changes in solar wind might really screw up Earth's electronics in 2050

You know that Apple slogan about tech that “just works?” Well, don’t get used to it, because according to new research from meteorologists at the U.K.’s University of Reading, by 2050 we could start to see some pretty widespread disruptions with all kinds of technology — and it’s all the fault of crazy space weather.

The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that shifts in solar activity may have several notable impacts on Earth, including making our technology more vulnerable to the effects of solar blasts.

“The big threat to technology is what we call coronal mass ejections (CMEs), big eruptions of magnetic fields and plasma from the sun,” Mathew Owens, Associate Professor in Space Environment Physics in the Department of Meteorology, told Digital Trends. “They then travel through space and interact with the Earth’s own magnetic field, and that’s what creates the problems with technology. The most obvious technology that could be affected are satellites. You create very high-energy particles with CMEs and these can impact integrated circuits, as well as potentially flipping a bit in a chip, turning a 1 into a 0. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if it suddenly turns off one of your essential power systems it could be very significant.”

The magnetic activity of the sun rises and falls in predictable cycles, but according to Owens it could be set to fall significantly by 2050, possibly its largest such ebb in 300 years. This would mean that coronal mass ejections become less frequent, but when they do occur, they may be more intense. Such low activity will also shrink the size of the sun’s “atmosphere” by around one-third, allowing in more electrically charged particles from outside the solar system.

“We know that this solar activity has been declining since the 1950s,” Owens continued. “We have data that suggests this will probably carry on into the future. What we’ve been looking at is what the implications are going to be from this changing space weather.”

In addition to having a possible impact on our technology, the researchers point out several other potential repercussions. One could echo the so-called “Maunder Minimum” of solar activity in the 17th century, which resulted in lower-than-average winter temperatures in Europe and elsewhere. Another effect could be an increase in cancer-causing cosmic radiation, in addition to making the Northern Lights less visible in some parts of the world.

Speaking about the technological impacts, Owens said that there are a couple of solutions we could consider.

“If you know exactly which day one of these coronal mass ejections is going to arrive, you can do things like reduce the load on your power grid, so your transformers don’t burn out,” he said. “But that’s really difficult to do because it requires incredibly accurate forecasting. The alternative is to deal with the engineering side of things. If you know that the next couple of decades are going to be very bad from a space weather perspective, you can design the microchips that go on your satellites to be radiation hard, or reconfigure your power grid to better cope with these kind of solar fluctuations.”

And to think we were sure that having to install endless Windows updates was the biggest technological challenge we faced here in the twenty-first century!

Photography

MIT science photographer isn’t an artist, but her work could fill galleries

Felice Frankel is an award-winning photographer, but she doesn't consider herself an artist. As a science photographer, she has been helping researchers better communicate their ideas for nearly three decades with eye-catching imagery.
Cars

This freewheeling Army truck-turned-tiny home is a labor of love

Most tiny homes are models of efficiency but one British metal worker has redefined the idea, converting an old Army truck into a mobile tiny home that comes with a bed, a sofa, a shower, and a beer garden.
Home Theater

Throw away those EarPods -- we dug up the best headphones in every style

Trolling the internet for hours to find headphones is no way to live. Instead, leverage our expertise and experience to find the best headphones for you. Here are our 10 favorites.
Emerging Tech

Only three people have explored the deep oceans. Meet the next two

In a new mission called Five Deeps, a team of explorers will brave the inhospitable depths of the world’s oceans, observing, mapping, and collecting samples along the way. The explorers aim to traverse 40,000 nautical miles over the…
Emerging Tech

Early-detection system for wildfires could save many states from big burns

When it comes to dealing with the growing problem of raging wildfires, a new wireless smart sensor system could help spot burgeoning blazes before they rage out of control. Here's how it works.
Outdoors

Light up the night! Here are the five best headlamps money can buy

Headlamps make all the difference when camping or walking the dog at night, especially when you're in need of both hands. From Black Diamond and Petzl to Coast here are some of the best headlamps on the market.
Emerging Tech

Elon Musk to unveil tunnel elevators and autonomous pods on December 18

We'll soon learn if Elon Musk's high-speed tunnel plan is a serious effort at ending traffic jams or little more than a fancy theme park ride. A big unveiling event is coming on December 18, a week later than originally planned.
Emerging Tech

The best drone photos from around the world

Most of today's drones come equipped with high-end cameras, which are quickly revolutionizing the world of aerial photography as we know it. Here are some of the best drone photos from around the world.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and other that do ... nothing particularly useful.
Emerging Tech

The 20 best tech toys for kids will make you wish you were 10 again

Looking for the perfect toy or gadget for your child? Thankfully, we've rounded up some of our personal favorite tech toys, including microscopes, computer kits, and a spherical droid from a galaxy far, far away.
Emerging Tech

Scoot your commute! Here are the 9 best electric scooters on the market

Electric scooters are an affordable, convenient way to minimize your carbon footprint and zip around town. Check out 8 of our current favorites, whether you're working with a budget or have some cash to spare.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.
Emerging Tech

Hear the sounds of wind on Mars from InSight’s latest audio recording

NASA's InSight craft has captured the sound of the wind blowing on the surface of Mars. The audio file was picked up by the air pressure sensor and the seismometer which detected vibrations from the 10 to 15 mph winds in the area.
Features

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.