CU Boulder scientist predicts possible increase in radiation exposure on airlines in coming years

BOULDER, Colo. – People who frequently travel by air could see an increased risk of radiation exposure over the next few years, according to a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In a commentary piece for the journal Space Weather, CU Boulder Professor Delores Knipp suggests the potential spike in radiation could come from an upcoming quiet period in the sun’s activity cycle called the solar minimum.

Knipp cites a study from Japan that estimates the solar minimum could allow other types of radiation – known as galactic cosmic rays – to enter the earth’s atmosphere in greater numbers than we’ve seen since the dawn of commercial flight.

Those rays can enter airplanes and then scatter other high-energy particles around the fuselage.

“Think of a well-struck cue ball with energy to shatter other balls on the pool table,” Knipp said.

Radiation exposure on flights is typically more of a concern on long trips and those that pass over the earth’s poles, where the atmosphere and magnetic field provide less protection. Knipp says a typical flight over the pole from Chicago to Beijing is exposed to radiation equivalent to what one would receive during a chest x-ray.

The European Union requires documentation of radiation on commercial flights, but no such requirement exists in the U.S. and Knipp said more research needs to be done on the radiation risk to flight crews and frequent flyers.

“Going forward, scientists need to translate knowledge gained into standard and practical measures to assess long-term health concerns for crews and passengers and to prepare for a major, solar-driven space weather radiation event that could force flight diversions or groundings due to anticipated overexposure,” Knipp wrote.

Read more in the journal Space Weather.

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