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

Goodbye, Northern Lights
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!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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