Solar Flares Could Make GPS Go Haywire

Solar flares explode from the sun with the power of 10 million volcanic eruptions, CBS News science and technology correspondent Daniel Sieberg reports.

The colorful Northern Lights are a side effect, but those scenic events in space can cause serious problems for communications on Earth.

Researchers like physicist Dale Gary from the New Jersey Institute of Technology now say intense bursts have affected the world's primary navigational tool — the global positioning system.

GPS is handy for finding the nearest restaurant while driving, but it's critical to everything from airplane travel to the guidance of military weapons.

"As people are using GPS in more and more ways, people can end up relying on it in ways that can be a problem if it's interrupted," Gary says.

The radiation from a solar flare contains radio waves, which act as noise or static, potentially disrupting not only air traffic and military activity, but also power grids and cell phones.

The frequency of flares recorded in early December was so powerful, experts say, it was like an opera singer breaking glass.

Scientists say this recent event serves as a wake-up call to improve GPS satellites and other communication systems by shielding them from this intense solar activity.