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What will happen in the modest sunspot scenario?

Among the people most directly at immediate risk from satellite loss— or malfunction of positional coordinates once the system restarts—will be those in aircraft that are using it on automatic pilot control. The danger can be caused by quite small solar flares, which are not exceptionally rare. As an example, in April 2014 a flare blocked communications and GPS over part of the Pacific. In that case, the air traffic density was very low and so there were no accidents. Had the same event happened over Europe or the eastern USA, the consequences would have been dire.

Satellite shutdown and communication loss between aircraft and ground control is now critical as the trend from improved technology is that both navigation and landings are made automatically, with the position extremely well controlled by GPS. Because of this reliance on electronics, there have been reductions in the number of air traffic control staff. Killing the satellite positioning generates a serious landing problem. Furthermore, many planes will go off course, not least because navigational piloting skills by non-electrical means are no longer seen as essential as they once were, and the training and manual experience will inevitably have become reduced for many types of aircraft. Note, however, that military personnel may be better prepared in this respect.

Rather than make extravagant claims, we can actually estimate the possible scale of the difficulties. Each day from major airports there are as many as 3,000 flights crossing the North Atlantic; additionally, there are around 30,000 European flights. North America has both scheduled and non-commercial flights, with current totals around 10,000 per day. For the main airport hubs, loss of GPS landing would be a very real difficulty, especially for an airport such as Heathrow, which is stacking incoming flights and landing a plane roughly once a minute at peak times.

So a loss of satellite navigation is the initial major hazard. For a true disaster movie version, we only need to add a thick cloud level, darkness, or both, over, say, northern Europe (certainly not that rare); because of the electronic noise from the event there will be a loss of communication between ground and crew. It is not a large step to realize that the onboard plane radio links may have failed, or be blocked as part of the overall solar flare electrical noise. In this level of disaster plot, the passenger death toll will soar, together with many more casualties in the areas where the planes hit the ground. For airports such as those in London, Frankfurt, and New York, the crashes could well involve densely populated urban areas.

Unfortunately, I am definitely not making excessive claims here: we do not need solar intervention to cause problems with air traffic movements because they are also vulnerable to equipment failures (or terrorist attacks) that damage the normal functioning of our electronic communications. To underline our sensitivity to disruption, a very minor computer problem in December 2014 at the main national air traffic control in southern England caused cancellations and repercussion effects of delays for several days. This is despite there being duplicate facilities and many fail-safe features, and no loss of power at the facility. So, relative to satellite communication failure, this was a trivial problem. In safety terms, it was handled well.

Failure of satellites or control centres not only creates risks for airline passengers, but has indirect financial effects as the satellite communication business is worth around a trillion dollars per year. So satellite losses would impact the entire global economy for many months, or years, until new satellites could be built and launched.

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