Solar storm exposes risks for farmers

A powerful solar storm over the weekend created more than a brilliant light show for people across the country — it also caused technological headaches for farmers.

What happened: The unusually powerful geomagnetic storm that sparked colourful aurora borealis across North America and Europe also disrupted the GPS systems used in modern farming equipment.

  • A farming-focused Reddit forum filled with reports over the weekend from farmers of tractors and other vehicles going haywire, in some cases forcing them to stop work.

  • John Deere warned farmers that its GPS-dependent software wouldn’t work properly during the storm, and using it to help plant crops could cause problems during the harvest season.

Why it matters: Modern agriculture depends on sophisticated technology that — as the solar storm has shown — can be pretty fragile and bring work to a halt when it breaks. That raises the risk of disruption to food growing from both natural events and human threats, like cyberattacks. 

  • Despite the risk of IT troubles, farmers use tech like GPS — a practice called “precision farming” — because it makes them more productive, saves money, and increases crop yields.

Back to basics: Just because GPS is broken doesn’t mean people can’t farm the old-fashioned way, according to one Reddit user: “Stick a piece of electrical tape on the center of the windshield. Close one eye. Line up on a tree a mile away. And don’t move your head.” —TS