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!


Is the 5G spectrum harmful to our health? Experts say, 'Don't freak out'

There's plenty of consumer anxiety about radiofrequency (RF) radiation, specifically around millimeter waves (mmWave) used on 5G networks, but is it based in reality? We asked the FDA to give us its official view on the subject.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.
Emerging Tech

This insect-sized drone can fly without any moving parts. How? Physics

Researchers from UC Berkeley have built a tiny insect-scale flying robot. Boasting no moving parts whatsoever, its atmospheric ion thrusters also allow it to move completely silently.
Emerging Tech

Does a steam-powered spacecraft hold the key to exploring the solar system?

A newly developed spacecraft prototype capable of using steam as a propellent may help the first miners survey potential dig sites and identify space rocks best fit for mining missions. Future versions may be fitted with sensors, allowing…
Emerging Tech

The 10 most expensive drones that you (a civilian) can buy

OK, these drones may be a bit beyond your budget: Check out the most expensive drones in the world, from industrial giants to highest-end filming tools.
Emerging Tech

Global Good wants to rid the world of deadly diseases with lasers and A.I.

Global Good, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and Bill Gates, aims to eradicate diseases that kill children in developing nations. It tackles difficult problems with high-tech prototypes.
Emerging Tech

A river of stars one billion years old flows across the southern sky

Astronomers have identified a river of stars flowing across our galaxy and covering most of the southern sky. The estimated 4000 stars that comprise the stream were born together and have been moving together for the last one billion years.
Emerging Tech

Of all the vape pens in the world, these 5 are the best

Vaping concentrates has become significantly more popular, especially among those that use cannabis for medicinal purposes. But don’t use just any vape pen: we found these five devices to be our favorites in 2018.

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.
Emerging Tech

Descending at an angle could be key to landing heavier craft on Mars

Landing on Mars is a challenge: The heavier the craft, the more difficult a safe landing becomes. Scientists propose using retropropulsion engines and angling the craft to create a pressure differential to land heavier crafts in the future.
Emerging Tech

Ant-inspired walking robot navigates without GPS by using polarized light

What do you get if you cross Boston Dynamics and Ant-Man? You get Antbot, a robot from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) which uses ant-like navigation to move around without the aid of GPS.
Emerging Tech

InSight’s heat probe will dig 16 feet beneath the surface of Mars

New images from NASA's InSight mission to Mars have confirmed that the lander succeeded in setting the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument onto the surface, from where a self-hammering spike will burrow downwards.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!