How Space Weather Could Cost Midwest Farmers $1 Billion | KCUR 89.3 | Panda Anku

Hay, Kansas — Drought and heat-stricken Kansas farmers now have more weather to worry about — in space.

An expected increase in solar flares over the next few years is likely to send massive bursts of radiation towards our atmosphere. And that would threaten satellite signals.

This matters to farmers because much of the technology that has made modern farming operations increasingly efficient relies on these satellites, particularly global positioning systems, or GPS.

So even a short time without GPS could come with one high costs for farmers in the Midwest.

“Even for two days, there could easily be a billion dollars in efficiency loss,” said Terry Griffin, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. “The odds of that happening are pretty good enough for really smart people to be concerned.”

A new study von Griffin and a team of other researchers from institutions such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center came up with this $1 billion figure based on a potentially widespread GPS outage hitting agriculture at a critical time would – like the corn growing season in the spring – throughout the Midwest.

This 2012 NASA image shows an example of a coronal mass ejection that can release billions of tons of material from the Sun’s atmosphere into space and carry its own magnetic field.

On a smaller scale, already solar power from 90 million miles away degrades satellite signals regularly.

Weston McCary, coordinator of technology projects at the Kansas Water Office in Colby, Kansas, said he’s frequently seen satellites being crippled by solar radiation for 20 minutes to hours.

“These systems are vulnerable to this solar activity,” McCary said. “It’s not if. It’s when.”

A geomagnetic storm in our atmosphere caused by a solar flare 40 Starlink satellites earlier this year. Has increased solar activity this summer hastened the sinking some satellites of the European Space Agency.

And as scientists expect solar activity to increase in the years to come, these outages could become longer and more frequent.

“You can’t predict if it’s going to be 20 minutes or 20 days,” McCary said. “(But) we should expect it to happen because it’s just a fact.”

    This graph illustrates the historical cycles of solar activity as the number of sunspots has waxed and waned over hundreds of years.

Royal Observatory of Belgium

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This graph illustrates the historical cycles of solar activity as the number of sunspots has waxed and waned over hundreds of years.

stare at the sun

So why are experts concerned about space weather now affecting agricultural technology? Timed coordination.

Centuries of astronomical records show that solar flares occur in a cyclical pattern, peaking in intensity and frequency about every 11 years.

Solar activity is now reaching its next peak. And the current solar cycle is already looking more intense than in the previous 11 years.

The other timekeeping that worries experts is how much more GPS has been integrated into the lives of farmers – and people in general – since solar activity last peaked a few years ago.

“There could easily be a billion dollar efficiency loss.” Terry Griffin, precision agriculture economist at Kansas State University

More than two-thirds of Kansas grain farms now use GPS to guide their tractors. This helps farmers to plant expensive seeds in precise rows without accidentally overlapping them.

About half of the farms use GPS to map their crop yields, giving them valuable data on what to plant in future seasons. Another quarter of farms use GPS mapping to determine the amount of fertilizer they apply to each part of their land.

And the loss of these efficient practices multiplied hundreds of thousands of farms in the Midwest would quickly add up.

“If you look at how much money is pouring into a farm every day,” McCary said, “when the wheels stop turning, things get expensive very quickly.”

Incorporating GPS into farming isn’t a bad thing, McCary said. It’s an essential element of the precision farming movement – ​​farmers are using satellite guidance, data and maps to conserve resources and save money. GPS can also help farmers in western Kansas Avoid wasting water from the dwindling Ogallala Aquifer as they irrigate.

But the more technology becomes integrated with farming, the more the sudden loss of that technology would hurt.

“Could it still be done manually? Absolutely,” McCary said. “Would it be that efficient? no Would that cost us some money as a scale advantage? Absolutely.”

In this 2014 image from NASA, a powerful X-class solar flare appears as a bright light in the upper right of the Sun's atmosphere.

In this 2014 image from NASA, a powerful X-class solar flare appears as a bright light in the upper right of the Sun’s atmosphere.


Plan B

Farming would not be the only part of life affected by these types of heavenly events. If the GPS fails on the farm, it will likely fail in people’s cars as well. It could even possibly turn off cell phones and power grids.

And the impact of satellites on farm operations goes well beyond GPS-guided tractors.

The US agricultural industry relies on the overhead photos it takes of farmland to assess the impact of insects and drought. Ranchers can use collar equipped with transmitters and sensors to track the movements of their livestock. Some farmers in remote areas without broadband rely on satellite for their internet connection.

“If you look at how much money is pouring into a farm every day…if the wheels stop, it gets expensive fast.” Weston McCary, technology projects coordinator for the Kansas Water Office

But even in a worst-case scenario where farmers lose access to GPS for an extended period of time, it doesn’t mean farming would automatically revert to the Stone Age, McCary said.

He is optimistic that farmers could use it ground-based radiolocation technology they used a few decades ago. Or just look at it.

“We’ve been growing corn this way for almost 100 years,” McCary said. “So the average farmer, especially the older gentlemen…they wouldn’t have a problem getting right back out there.”

But the reality is that many people – not just farmers – are not even aware of the possibility that a cosmic event could disrupt the technology they have become addicted to.

Griffin, K-State’s agricultural economist, has been touring the state speaking to farmers about this topic for more than a decade. He said it’s the first time people hear about it. But farmers were receptive when he presented the science, he said, so there’s some momentum for awareness-raising.

The first step for farmers, Griffin said, is figuring out how to temporarily keep their farm running without GPS so they don’t get caught off guard. Perhaps speak to their financial advisors and equipment dealers to discuss backup options.

It’s like having a spare tire and a jack in the back of the car. Even if you don’t expect to get a flat tire every trip, you know it will happen eventually. And when the time comes, you want to be ready.

“We, as humans, cannot control solar activity,” Griffin said. “But we can try to make a plan.”

David Condos reports western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @davidcondos.

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