Solar pole flip

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Every 11 or so years, the sun undergoes a change: its magnetic poles reverse. Like Earth, the sun has a magnetic North and a magnetic South. But unlike Earth, whose poles flip on the order of hundreds of thousands of years, the sun’s change is a regular occurrence. The sun’s poles last reversed in 2013. So, another one is just about due — likely starting sometime this year.

But it’s what happens before the flip that can cause trouble.

Leading up to the pole reversal is a time of increasingly intense magnetic activity on the surface of the sun. This typically brings more intense solar storms, which can cause disruption to satellites, communication and GPS in space and disable parts of the electrical grid.

An increase in solar flares can cause HF radio signals to become degraded or completely absorbed. This results in a radio blackout – the absence of HF communication, primarily impacting the 3 to 30 MHz band.

The increased level of X-ray and ultraviolet radiation results in ionization of the lower layers of the ionosphere on the sunlit side of Earth. Under normal conditions, high frequency radio waves are able to travel long distances due to the refraction by the upper layers of the ionosphere. But when a strong solar flare occurs, ionization occurs in the lower, more dense layers of the ionosphere, and radio waves that pass through this layer lose energy due to the more frequent collisions that occur in the higher density environment, causing HF signals to become completely absorbed.

The severity of the impact on HF radio waves depends on the intensity of the solar flare and the frequency of the radio waves. Higher frequency radio waves (above 30 MHz) are less affected by ionospheric disturbances caused by solar flares, while lower frequency waves (below 10 MHz) are more susceptible to disruptions.

In summary, Solar flips, have significant impacts on high-frequency (HF) communications:

  • Ionospheric Variations – Changes in the ionosphere’s density and composition disrupt HF signal propagation, affecting communication reliability.
  • Increased Solar Activity – Heightened solar activity during flips leads to disturbances like sudden ionospheric disturbances (SIDs), causing signal fading and interruptions in HF communications.
  • Auroral Activity – Geomagnetic disturbances during flips increase auroral activity, contributing to HF communication disruptions, particularly in polar regions.
  • Polar Cap Absorption – Solar particles during high activity can cause polar cap absorption, significantly affecting HF signals passing through polar regions.
  • Enhanced HF Propagation – Despite challenges, flips can occasionally enhance HF propagation, allowing signals to travel longer distances, but this is not consistent and unpredictable.

In essence, solar flips profoundly impact HF communications by disrupting signal propagation, causing interruptions, and occasionally offering opportunities for enhanced transmission, making them a critical factor to consider in managing radio communication systems.

To learn more about Alaris HF product range please see “HF Comms and detection thereof” application note on our website.