Scientists warn the next solar maximum will cause some serious disruptions for GPS navigation users. In the past this wasn't really an issue as GPS navigation wasn't yet a major consumer product during the solar maximum in 2001, but this time it may create problems as a lot of modern infrastructure is depended on GPS signals. Researchers estimate sat-nav receivers will be blinded for tens of minutes, probably a few times a year at the solar maximum, and there's little that can be done to mitigate the problem, with the exception of complex (and expensive) directional antennas used in military applications.
Solar flares - vast exhalations of magnetic energy from the Sun's surface - spray out radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, from low-energy radio waves through to high-energy gamma-rays, along with bursts of high-energy particles toward the Earth.
The radiation or waves that come from the Sun can make sat-nav receivers unable to pick out the weak signal from satellites from the solar flare's aftermath.
Besides the blindness problem, researchers also expect sat-nav users will face unpredictable positioning errors. Based on the last solar maximum, Cathryn Mitchell of the University of Bath estimates the UK may see positioning errors of about 10 metres.
"We can look at the measurements from the last solar maximum," Professor Mitchell said.
"If we project those forward, it varies quite a lot across the Earth; looking at the UK it will be about 10-metre errors in the positioning."
The errors would be much more long-lasting than the "blindness" problem, lasting hours or even days.