Racking up those frequent flyer miles? Here is something else you may rack up in the next few years if you are a frequent flyer: increased risk exposure to radiation particles from space due to the decreasing activity of the sun.
According to University of Colorado Boulder Professor Delores Knipp, too much in-flight exposure to radiation can break DNA strands and produce chemical radicals that can alter cell function and increase cancer risk.
This risk is increased with both longer flights and flights over poles.
Using a hypothetical flight path to illustrate, Knipp likened flying over a pole (an over-pole-flight from Chicago to Beijing) to being the equivalent of receiving the same dose of radiation one might get from having a chest x-ray.
Typically, commercial airline crew and passengers at roughly 30,000 feet are exposed to low doses of radiation. Knipp expects this radiation amount to increase with the impending solar minimum (a quiet period in the sun’s 22-year cycle), which will grant radiation easier access to the Earth in the coming years. Particularly concerning, according to Knipp, will be when the galactic cosmic rays enter Earth’s atmosphere and penetrate aircraft hulls, producing and scattering additional high-energy particles, which scientists think may cause particle showers within the aircraft.
Currently, there aren’t regulations concerning the documentation of in-flight radiation on commercial aircraft in the U.S.
Knipp argues for more available research in her Space Weather article titled, Essential Science for Understanding Risks from Radiation for Airline Passengers and Crews, “…to prepare for a major, solar-driven space weather radiation event that could force flight diversions or groundings due to anticipated overexposure.”