Science & Technology

Does space weather cause flight delays? New study spots links

Flight delay problems can be relieved to some extent if flight scheduling reasonably considers space weather effects

By Rohini Krishnamurthy
Published: Wednesday 01 March 2023
Does space weather cause flight delays? New study spots links
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

Bad space weather has been linked with safety issues during air travel. Now, a new study has found that it is also connected to flight delays.

Space weather originates from the sun. They include solar flares — bursts of electromagnetic radiation, coronal mass ejections (CME) and solar energetic particles (SEP). 

CMEs interact with the Earth's magnetic field to create a geomagnetic storm, which can disrupt navigation systems such as the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).

Further, space weather is linked to thunderstorms and lightning. This could directly affect flight safety, the new study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports highlighted.

To avoid radiation hazards during SEPs, flights have had to change their schedule and routes or lower their altitude. 

Read more: Just what is the hoopla around 5G and aviation troubles in the US about

However, how space weather affects flight delays has not been studied comprehensively, the paper noted.

This question can be seen as ‘less important’ than flight safety. It is also challenging to establish a definitive link between space weather and flight delays, Yi Wang from the Harbin Institute of Technology, told Down To Earth (DTE). He is one of the authors of the study.

Wang and his colleagues gathered flight data from January 1, 2015 to December 30, 2019. This roughly amounted to four billion records.

The average arrival delay time during space weather events rose by 81.34 per cent compared to quieter periods, their analysis showed. 

The 30-minute delay rate and the long-term (greater than or equal to 240 minutes) delay rate increased by 21.45 per cent and 47.59 per cent respectively. 

The researchers also compared fight regularity with sunspot numbers, which are spots that appear during the 11-year solar cycle. The cycle goes through high and low activity.

A higher sunspot number means more solar activities and more space weather events occur as a result. In contrast, a low sunspot number means fewer solar activities and space weather events.

Their analysis showed a pattern: Flights were less regular in years with high space weather events. Flights were more regular when fewer space weather events occurred in a year. 

Space weather interferes with communication and navigation, which are crucial in managing modern air traffic and ensuring safety. It can disrupt communication between air traffic control (ATC) and the flight crew, for instance. As a result, the ATC might fail to clear takeoff or landing on time. 

It could also have a knock-on effect. “Any slight delays in each stage may accumulate and lead to obvious flight delays or cancellations,” the paper read. 

A malfunction in navigation, too, may lead to aircrafts being rerouted, held on the ground or undergoing additional inspections.

These findings could bring new ideas. “Flight delay problems could potentially be relieved to some extent if the flight scheduling could reasonably consider the space weather effects,” Wang explained. This could benefit airlines and passengers, he added.

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