Astronaut Safety

Astronauts are subject to higher levels of radiation during their missions than people down on Earth, although their exposure is carefully monitored and kept within the limits of what NASA has deemed acceptably low given the circumstances. Spacewalks, for example, are sometimes rescheduled or canceled if a solar storm is on the horizon.

The Effects of Space Weather

While most solar flares and other types of space weather flung off the sun don't affect us all the way down here on Earth, particularly strong manifestations can create disruptions from time to time. Intense solar activity that reaches us triggers geomagnetic storms. These storms can temporarily disable, partially damage or completely destroy satellites, especially if the people who operate them don't get enough advanced notice. GPS and other communication systems suffer as a result, a particular problem at higher latitudes and higher altitudes.

Because of these malfunctions, transpolar airline flights sometimes need to be rerouted. Apart from potentially losing GPS navigation and radio communication, a plane's avionics can be disrupted and its passengers and crew exposed to unsafe levels of radiation -- all of which are serious safety concerns. Power lines and pipelines are sometimes damaged as well. Disruptions to either can cause energy grids to stutter or break down. Again, with warning, the worst of the trouble can often be mitigated, but issues like increased pipe corrosion and widespread blackouts may still occur.

So will 2012 bring any major solar flares? It's feasible, although the current cycle probably won't have reached its peak by then, and, as mentioned earlier, isn't predicted to be as active or as intense as previous cycles. If there are solar flares, will they cause problems for us here on Earth? It's possible, but with a little foresight and preventative planning, it shouldn't turn into too much of an issue. One thing that is certain, however, is that solar flares are not something doomsday theorists can point to with any credibility as a potential cause for the end of the world. Those claims just aren't based on good science.