When the weather in space is bad, you don't want to be in a plane taking a polar route, says Bill Murtagh of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo.
"The air traffic controller could be talking to the pilot one minute and really, literally within a minute or so, that signal can go from quite clear to scratchy noise," Murtagh says.
Radio interference is just one problem caused by space weather. A burst of energy from a solar flare can knock out GPS navigation systems, Murtagh says. A radiation storm could expose people on a polar flight to the equivalent of a dozen chest X-rays.
Despite the risks, airlines have pursued polar flights aggressively because they let planes fly the shortest path between North America and Asia, or Argentina and New Zealand.
"You're shaving off a couple of hours of flight time, which everyone appreciates," Murtagh says. Passengers reach their destinations sooner and the airlines can save thousands of gallons of fuel.
The sun's coronal loops, seen here, are often precursors to solar flares. Such flares emit strong electromagnetic energy, disrupting radio contact and GPS systems in airplanes flying near Earth's poles. (NASA photo)
Thank goodness for SOHO, the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory (a project of international collaboration between ESA and NASA to study the Sun from its deep core to the outer corona and the solar wind).
Hopefully they will be able to warn when our sun expands into a red giant. In five billion years.