Take every possible step to prevent social, economic disruption

Solar activity can have a negative impact on telecommunication devices such as mobile phones and Global Positioning System. Measures are needed to minimize disruption to an increasingly digitized society.

When large explosions called solar flares occur around sunspots on the surface of the sun, high-temperature gases containing electrically charged particles, strong X-rays and other matter are released.

This can disrupt the magnetic field around the Earth, causing telecommunication disruptions and satellite failures as well as power outages due to malfunctions of electrical equipment.

In February this year, 40 of a fleet of 49 satellites that had been launched by a U.S. space company failed to reach orbit and burned up as they fell back into the atmosphere.

In Canada, power outages occurred in extensive areas in 1989, affecting about 6 million people.

Solar activity peaks within a cycle of about 11 years, and the next peak is expected to occur around 2025. Administrative bodies and businesses must strengthen preparations now.

According to a report compiled in June by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s panel of experts, mobile phone services would be intermittently interrupted during a worst-case scenario in which large “once-in-a-century” flares occur continuously for two weeks.

The report also emphasized that a possible decline in the accuracy of GPS could hinder the operation of airplanes and ships, and could cause such incidents as collisions of self-driving cars and drones.

GPS and mobile phone services, which use satellite functions, are important infrastructure. The social and economic impact of a large-scale, long-term functional disruption to such infrastructure would be significant.

In the United States, solar activity is regarded as a national hazard risk along with hurricanes, infectious disease outbreaks and earthquakes, and the country is working to improve observation, monitoring and forecasting accuracy of solar activity, and to develop technologies to limit damage to telecommunications.

In Japan, a national research institute is conducting observations and forecasts of solar activity, but it can hardly be said that the risk is widely known or that countermeasures are being taken.

Power companies and organizations that operate satellites should come up with system designs and implement operations based on the assumption of damage from solar flares.

In particular, telecommunications companies bear a heavy responsibility. It is important to maintain the pay phone network in case the mobile telephone network is disrupted. Plans to reduce the number of pay phones should be reviewed. This would also help in the event of failure of mobile phone services due to natural disasters or human error.

Users also need to be aware of the risks of over-reliance on mobile phone services. Keeping a landline phone at home is one way that users can protect themselves.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 1, 2022)