Feb 08, 2017 I Brett Tingley

Mysterious Radiation Clouds Could Threaten Airline Travelers

Air travel just doesn’t seem quite as safe as it once did. Although, was hurtling through the air at incredible altitudes inside a giant metal tube ever really safe? Not if you ask gravity. Aside from the usual dangers associated with mechanical failures and human error, air travelers now have to worry about drones or UFOs buzzing about the skies, or even the recent string of mystery illnesses striking airliners worldwide and causing mysterious groundings. NASA, being the harbingers of doom and gloom that they often are these days, has added another terrifying danger to the list of things to fear when flying: mysterious clouds of dangerous cosmic radiation floating around the stratosphere.

Maybe the skies aren't so friendly after all.

NASA physicists working at the Goddard Space Flight Center have published a report outlining the dangers of such radiation clouds and their efforts to study them. The source of cosmic radiation is the constant bombardment our planet is subjected to by the Sun and other extraterrestrial radiation sources outside our solar system. Earth’s magnetic field (magnetosphere) blocks most of this radiation, but given recent disturbances in the geomagnetic field, cosmic radiation could be posing an increasingly worrisome threat.

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I thought the Sun was supposed to be good for us or something.

In a recent publication in the awesomely-named journal Space Weather, NASA astrometeorologists claimed that fluctuations in the magnetosphere have created dense clouds of radiation at various altitudes in Earth’s skies:

[We] report on small radiation “clouds” in specific magnetic latitude regions and note that active geomagnetic, variable space weather conditions may sufficiently modify the magnetospheric magnetic field that can enhance the radiation environment, particularly at high altitudes and middle to high latitudes.

In a study of 265 flights, radiation levels were found to have suddenly spiked for seemingly no reason. NASA scientists believe these strange “clouds” of cosmic radiation trapped in our atmosphere might be the culprit. To help study these clouds and their effects on humans, NASA has launched a new upper atmosphere balloon-based lab called “RaD-X” which will collect data on radiation levels at various altitudes.

NASA's RaD-X balloon.

Cosmic radiation, like any other type of radiation, can cause many different health issues. Quantifying and measuring the risks associated with cosmic radiation is difficult because of naturally-occurring fluctuations and the unpredictability of variables such as time spent in the area, the location of flights, and the levels of ambient radiation on any given day. Flight crews are at a much higher risk than travelers due to the amount of time they spend in the air, and pregnant women are also warned against frequent flying.

Brett Tingley

Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.

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