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Solar Storm Crashes GPS Systems for some Farmers

The powerful geomagnetic storm that cast the northern lights’ vivid colors across the Northern Hemisphere also caused some navigational systems in tractors and other farming equipment to break down, suppliers and farmers said. Over the weekend, these disruptions brought operations to a halt across the U.S, Canada, Africa, Europe and Asia. “I’ve never dealt with anything like this,” said Patrick O’Connor, a Minnistota corn and soybean grower. O'Connor said that after being rained out for two weeks, he got into his tractor hoping to spend the night planting corn. When he received a warning about his GPS system, he called a technical help line and was directed to a message saying there was an outage and nothing could be done to fix it. Solar storms are caused by violent expulsions of charged particles from the sun’s surface. When directed toward Earth the material can interact with our planet’s magnetic field, resulting in a geomagnetic storm. The event this weekend was the strongest solar storm to reach Earth since October 2003. The event followed reports of at least seven massive solar flares or earth-directed Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) from a sunspot cluster 16 times the diameter of Earth. These solar eruptions caused geomagnetic storms that impacted satellite systems and other electronics, disrupted communications, electric grids, navigation and radio. Landmark Implement, which sells John Deere farming equipment across parts of the Midwest, said that the accuracy of some of its systems had been “extremely compromised” and they were searching for a “tool to help predict this in the future.” Although they described the storm as a “historic event” rather than something growers would have to “continue to battle frequently.” Terry Griffin, an associate professor in agricultural economics at Kansas State University, said that while infrequent, such storms still posed a threat to farming in the United States, where the majority of crops are planted using modern guidance systems. “This was the first time we’ve had geomagnetic storms that were so strong, and we were reliant upon GPS,” he said, noting that among the worst times for a storm like this to occur was during the planting season, when precision is crucial. Alternative technologies, including systems that use machine vision and artificial intelligence, or a more localized navigation system that would not collapse in a solar storm, are being developed, Dr. Griffin added. Beyond the inconvenience of delayed field work, there could be real dollars lost to such an extended outage. From an agricultural perspective, Dr. Griffin has been studying the economic impacts of GPS outages for several years. He’s found that even a few hours to half a day of lost GPS signal can come with a cost for farmers. That’s especially true for farmers who miss an optimum planting or harvesting window. Pushing field work later into the season can ultimately cost them yield and performance during the season. That said, it depends on the time of year and the regions impacted. A January disruption would likely have less impact than one during planting or harvest. Dr. Griffin says while GPS satellites have been in use and in orbit for many years – the first launched in 1978 – civilian use of GPS is relatively new. He believes these new space weather events will come with a learning curve. “This was the first solar cycle maximum we've had that's going to be big with satellite communications,” Dr. Griffin said. “So, we're going to find out some things.” O’Connor, the Minnesota farmer, said that the outage had made him realize how reliant he was on a technology often taken for granted, and that if it stopped working again in the future, he may have to “find ways to make do without.” So on Friday, instead of planting corn, O’Connor said did ground work in another field. “It interrupted my evening, but I still was in the field,” he added, “taking in the Northern Lights in all their glory.”




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