Over the next couple of years, the sun will reach its period of maximum activity and solar flares will be at their highest point in years. The last time there was a high period of solar activity, there were few people that relied on things like GPS in their daily lives. Today GPS is a very common technology that millions rely on each day for getting around all over the world. The military also relies on GPS for combat operations.
The coming period of high solar activity and solar flares has some scientists worried that GPS signals will be interfered with in a way that could cause minor issues for some users. The researchers point out that the military uses a much more complex GPS system than consumers have access to and military use of GPS should not be affected.
BBC News reports that what is likely to happen when solar activity reaches its peak is that the low-power GPS signals the navigation device in a car relies on for positioning information won't be able to pick the GPS signal from orbiting satellites due to radiation from solar flares. Ultimately, GPS receivers in consumer devices may be blinded for tens of minutes a few times a year when the sun is at maximum activity.
Throwing another issue into the mix for GPS receivers is that the ionosphere changes in composition depending on the amount of solar radiation hitting it and can lengthen the time it takes GPS signals to make it to the ground adding more of a chance of errors for GPS devices.
Professor Cathryn Mitchell from the University of Bath said, "We can look at the measurements from the last solar maximum. If we project those forward, it varies quite a lot across the Earth; looking at the UK it will be about 10-meter errors in the positioning."
Scientists at Cornell University warned about the potential for adverse effects on GPS systems caused by solar flares in 2006. They warned that the effects could have big problems for emergency services that rely on GPS.