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The Spring 2011 issue of The Earth Scientist is focused on modernizing seismology education. Thanks to IRIS, you can download this issue for free as a pdf. Print copies are available in our online store.
Space weather storms can cause trouble on Earth. Strong storms can mess up radio signals, shut down electrical systems, and expose people to radiation.
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Image courtesy L. J. Lanzerotti, Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, Inc.

How Space Weather Affects Human Society

Space weather affects people and society in many ways. Let's take a look at the ways radiation and magnetic disturbances in space can affect us here on Earth.

Space weather "storms" can disrupt radio signals. We use radio waves for cell phone signals, television, and to communicate with airplanes. Space weather storms can interfere with those signals. GPS (Global Positioning Systems) use radio waves from satellites. Those systems are less accurate during space weather storms. The ionosphere is a part of our atmosphere. Radio signals can bounce off the ionosphere. Space weather causes changes to the ionosphere.

Space weather storms change the magnetic field around Earth. That can really mess up compasses! Changes to the magnetic field can make electricity flow in strange places. That can damage electrical power systems and metal pipelines.

Space weather creates different types of radiation. Radiation can harm people and other living creatures. It is especially dangerous to astronauts in space. It can also be a problem for people in jet airplanes. Some animals, like homing pigeons, have natural compasses. Space weather storms can make it harder for those animals to find their way around.

Satellites can be damaged by space weather storms. Radiation can damage electronics on satellites and can "wear away" at solar panels. "Strong" space weather heats Earth's atmosphere and makes it puff up. That makes more drag on satellites, which tend to fall out of orbit sooner.

Not all space weather effects are bad, though. "Storms from space" can produce beautiful light shows called the aurora, or Northern and Southern Lights. There are myths, legends and art in Arctic cultures about the aurora. For example, one Norse myth says the Northern Lights are reflections from the shields of the warrior-maiden valkyries.

Last modified January 19, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA