The South Atlantic Anomaly

Was this mysterious region in the south Atlantic responsible for the crash of Air France flight 447?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Conspiracies, General Science, Natural History, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #234
November 30, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

You've heard of the Bermuda Triangle, you may have even heard of its Pacific counterpart the Devil's Sear near Japan. But did you know about the South Atlantic Anomaly? It's a region over South America and the south Atlantic Ocean centered at about 30 degrees West and 30 degrees South, and it's big, a little larger than the entire United States. Some say it's a danger to anything entering it, and they point most specifically to the crash of Air France flight 447 in June of 2009, in which 228 people died. Whereas the Bermuda Triangle and the Devil's Sea are merely lines drawn on a map, the South Atlantic Anomaly is a measurable physical presence. Today, Skeptoid takes a look at what it is, what kind of danger it presents, and whether it really brought down Flight 447.

To understand the South Atlantic Anomaly, let's start by taking a quick look at the Earth's magnetic fields and the Van Allen radiation belts.

We all know that the Earth's magnetic axis is not the same as its rotational axis. As the Earth's molten, ferromagnetic liquid core churns, it generates a magnetic field, and the north-south axis of this field is tilted about 16° from the rotational axis. The north magnetic pole is in the north Canadian islands, but it moves around a lot, and it's currently headed northwest at about 64 km per year.

Here's the part that many people don't know. While the north magnetic pole is about 7° from the north rotational pole, the south magnetic pole is about 25° from the south rotational pole. A line drawn from the north magnetic pole to the south does not pass through the center of the Earth. Our magnetic field is torus shaped, like a giant donut around the earth. But it's not only tilted, it's also pulled to one side, such that one inner surface of the donut is more squished up against the side of the earth than the other. It's this offset that causes the South Atlantic Anomaly to be at just one spot on the Earth.

The anomaly itself consists of radiation. It is, in fact, the inner Van Allen radiation belt. If you picture the Earth as a circle enclosed within double parentheses, then bent those parentheses sharply toward it, you can visualize the shape of the Van Allen belt. The inner belt is shaped about like the letter C, while the outer belt is longer and almost completely encloses the inner belt and bends in sharply toward the magnetic poles. Since this whole field is tilted and offset to one side from the Earth, there's one point where the inner Van Allen belt almost touches the surface. This is exactly what the South Atlantic Anomaly is.

The belts are shaped by the solar wind, and as the Earth spins within them, the offset causes the whole system to wobble and everything is always in motion. This constant stirring is one reason the Northern Lights aren't static; they dance around. Correspondingly, the South Atlantic Anomaly observes a daily cycle, growing and shrinking and changing intensity, strongest at solar noon each day and weakest around solar midnight. One result of the solar wind hitting the magnetic field is the creation of a cavity within the field called a Chapman-Ferraro Cavity, and charged particles are trapped and collect within this cavity. These trapped particles are what the inner and outer Van Allen belts physically consist of.

The inner Van Allen belt, where it comes closest to Earth at the South Atlantic Anomaly, is a cloud of energetic protons. Their energies range from about 100 keV (100,000 electron volts), which is enough to penetrate half a millimeter of lead, all the way up to about 400 MeV (400,000,000 electron volts), enough to penetrate 143 mm of lead. You would not want to stay there very long. In fact this is one of the arguments made by the conspiracy theorists who say we never went to the Moon. But the irregular shape of the Van Allen belts relative to the Earth provided part of the solution for the Apollo astronauts, in the form of a gap large enough to squeak through with only minimal exposure. The rest of the solution lay in Apollo's speed, and the astronauts cleared the belts in only one hour.

Many satellites are not so lucky though, and have to pass through the South Atlantic Anomaly frequently. Some 200 satellites currently have to deal with this. Many, like the Hubble Space Telescope, turn off certain sensitive sensors whenever they pass through. Electronics on such craft that are vulnerable must be shielded. The International Space Station also has this problem, but since it completes an entire orbit every 90 minutes, its exposure time is very brief. Also only a few of its orbits pass through the Anomaly. The total radiation exposure received by space station residents is within safe levels, though they've reported odd things like computers crashing when they pass through the Anomaly. Scary stuff.

We know that the South Atlantic Anomaly is hazardous to electronic equipment and to humans who spend time inside it. We know that it dips down close to the Earth. So if we add these together, it suddenly sounds plausible that Flight 447 might have been taken down by it. Right?

Well, all by itself, wrong. Although the Anomaly is a dangerous place, its edges are pretty well defined. The closest it ever gets to the Earth's surface is about 200 km, and at that height it's very small. The highest commercial aircraft might ever get is about 15 km, and usually lower. Flight 447 was absolutely not, no way, impossible, not in the South Atlantic Anomaly, either when it crashed, or at any other time. The Anomaly is in space, it is not in the atmosphere; and you're completely safe if you're below it and not in it. Your computers will not crash, your electronics will not fry, and you will not be baked by radiation. You'll never even know it's up there.

Consider also that half of South America, including nearly all of Brazil, is directly underneath the South Atlantic Anomaly. Aircraft fly safely throughout South America all day every day. Computers, hospitals, and data centers operate here trouble free year round. There is simply no evidence, nor any plausible hypothetical argument, to suspect that the relative nearness of the Van Allen belts posed any danger at all to Flight 447.

Moreover, Flight 447 had already cleared the area below the Anomaly when it disappeared. Its last reported position was some 1,000 kilometers beyond the Anomaly's northern reaches. It made it past the Anomaly, and then continued flying safely northeast for nearly two hours before whatever happened happened.

So how do we explain that little detail, the crashed airplane?

The crash was investigated by the BEA, France's version of the American NTSB, the Bureau of Investigations and Analysis for the Safety of Civil Aviation. (Here's a link to their official report.) Although the plane's flight data recorders have not yet been recovered, some data was received. At about the same time that it disappeared from radar, the plane's systems send a burst of automated error messages to Airbus for maintenance purposes. These messages were almost all about inconsistencies between the three pitot probes that measure airspeed, almost certainly indicating that they were icing up. The plane was flying through storm clouds, though not a strong storm and not one to normally be concerned about, but evidently it was enough to ice up the airspeed sensors. In fact, a number of such automated error messages from other planes had prompted Air France to update the pitot probes on its Airbus 330s and 340s, and the replacement probes for this particular aircraft had been received by Air France six days before the crash, and were due to be installed.

Analysis of the debris and the bodies showed that the plane was in cruise mode and that no preparations for a crash had been made. It bellyflopped flat on the water, hard enough to kill the victims and destroy the aircraft. The BEA has determined that insufficient information exists to determine the exact cause of the crash, and they are in fact making plans to again try to recover the flight data recorders.

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A number of independent researchers have not given up on trying to pin the blame for the crash on solar radiation. On May 31, earlier in the day, Sunspot 1019 appeared. The principal danger of sunspots is a wave of ejected high-energy protons, which start arriving at Earth about 15 minutes after a solar flare event and continue for many hours. Could a burst of solar radiation from Sunspot 1019 have knocked down Flight 447?

It is, absolutely, a possibility. But it's not as strong a candidate as it may initially seem. According to NOAA's space weather report for the period, Sunspot 1019 produced no flares on May 31, and no proton events at all were observed. Flux was reported to be at normal levels, and geomagnetic activity was described as quiet.

This reduces the possibility that solar or cosmic radiation caused the crash to pure speculation. It's improbable that a rogue particle or two would have caused a system error as specific as multiple inconsistencies reported by the airspeed sensors, especially given that icing from the storm cloud was a far more probable culprit. How this translated into the subsequent systemwide failures and crash is still unknown, but there's no evidence at this point that any external causes were at fault.

Perhaps a future recovery of the flight data recorders will shed additional light, but for now, there don't seem to be any questions about Flight 447 that can only be answered by the South Atlantic Anomaly. It's there, and it's real, and it does pose problems for spacecraft and astronauts passing through it, but all the information we have now indicates there's no reason for people on the ground or in the air beneath it to be concerned.

Update - In 2011, the flight data recorders were recovered. The BEA confirmed that the pitot tubes gave inaccurate speed readings which triggered the aircraft's stall warning. The aircraft then stalled at 38,000 feet, and plunged to the ocean in only three and a half minutes, due to pilot error. No significant mysteries remain, and no reason to suspect the South Atlantic Anomaly had anything to do with it. A transcript from the cockpit voice recorder and detailed explanation of what went wrong is here. - BD

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Bailey, J. Biomedical Results of Apollo. Washington, DC: Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975. Chapter 3.

BEA. Update on the Investigation into the Accident to flight AF 447 on 1st June 2009. Paris: Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses, 2009.

Goldhammer, L. Proton spectrum characteristics of the 7 July 1966 solar-flare. Pocatello: Idaho State University, 1967.

Hope, F. "Did a solar flare knock Air France 447 out of the sky?" Future News Today. Frank Hope, 21 Jun. 2009. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <>

IPS Radio & Space Services. "The Most Powerful Solar Flares Ever Recorded." Dr. Tony Phillips, 20 Apr. 2001. Web. 14 Nov. 2010. <>

NOAA. "Preliminary Report and Forecast of Solar Geophysical Data." Space Weather Prediction Center. 2 Jun. 2009, Number 1761: 1.

Walt, M. Introduction to Geomagnetically Trapped Radiation. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "The South Atlantic Anomaly." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 30 Nov 2010. Web. 1 Sep 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 27 comments

conditions are tough enough with your feet firmly on the ground at times. Just ask Francis Collins.

Its a credit to pilots that they are that very good when things go bad.

Henk v, sin city NSW, Oz
August 10, 2011 10:23pm

Good prog on the BBC Horizon with detailed background on the Earth's magnetic field

Jim, London UK
September 1, 2011 2:05am

It's way more than 200 satellites which pass through the SAA, but it's something which is dealt with - turn off certain systems, shielding, etc.

One of the experiments on Columbia's final flight was a StarTraker built by students from off-the-shelf (non radiation shielded) electronics. Its flight rules called for the experiment to be shut off whenever the shuttle flew through the SAA.

There's nothing unusual about radiation upsets on the essentially off-the-shelf notebook computers used on the space station, they're rebooted on a regular basis and occasionally have to be retired when an upset permanently fries something. But the computers which actually operate the space station are Mil-Spec rad-hardened computers designed to handle the radiation exposure.

The really expensive Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer mounted on the space station just shuts off its super-sensitive detectors when going through the SAA.

Some satellites use an incredibly unusual way of avoiding SAA problems. Their orbits hug the equator so close that they never pass through the SAA. This usually requires an unusual rocket launch (airborne Pegasus from an equatorial launch site typically) and is typically used for high energy astrophysics experiments (HETE-2, SAX, Uhuru).

I do agree with the article about the SAA not having anything to do with any airplane crashes - the SAA does not dip into the atmosphere.

Phil, Apopka, Fl
May 5, 2012 3:25am

The last sentence made sense.

The instrument you described is for measurement of a very small effect. The detectors by definition measure events that you would describe as inconsequential.

Whilst radiation that would be inconsequential to health could be measured using a picoammeter (the above instrument system measures apparently space variance) it clearly and obviously has no claim to vehicle unstabling levels.

as I said, I require that the last sentence you posted makes absolute sense but the prior paragraphs would be construed by a conspiratorialist as feckless air control steeing passenger aircraft etc into deadly regions.

This is not what is measured by the intsruments.

When reporting a factual post always remember that conspiratorialists always forget scale!

There's mercury in that water!

As far as I am concerned, from the dose reported i the literature, air staff could be considered radiation workers. So are nurses and dentists assistants. This doesnt mean they have a higher health disposition than anyone else who lives in a high natural radiation environment.

There is a position that can be gleaned form the previous discussion, that a spurious devastating radiation exposure can or may occur. This requires lethal doses over very short times indeed.

Were this the case and reported within science, my old career would have been even more fascinating than it was..

At least it would have saved attendance at boring meetings!!!!

Mud, Back in SinCity, Oz
May 23, 2012 3:43am

Guys: Do they not have pitot heaters anymore?? Just curious, as we had them when I was a pilot..

Dale Martin, Birmingham AL
October 31, 2012 1:32am

Geez I hope you aren't Dale Martin who lectures new testament theology at Yale.

This change from pilot to professor would require a lot of justification before I got into a bird in the near future!

PS his lectures are great if you like that sort of thing.

Mud, At virtually missing point, NSW, OZ,
November 8, 2012 4:36am

Mud: No, when I lived in CT, I used to get the same thing..I was an Army Aviator at 19 and in Nam, no time to go to Yale, and they don't take locals anyhow..Now if you want a really good lecture on New Testament Theology, I can come up with one quick, if you wish!!

Dale in Alabama, formerly Connecticut

Dale, Birmingham AL
February 28, 2013 7:23pm

Thanks Dale. Its a pity I didnt see this earlier.

I'll pass on the new testament theology lecture as Dale (the other) is on line and his lectures are of high quality.

They dont sell the party line, they cover what is said and thought by people 2000 years ago.

Aviator? your thoughts in the flight 77 skeptoid would help.

Mud, Sin City, Oz
March 21, 2013 6:36pm

Hi all,
I know these figures are not at all accurate, they are a simple few equations explaining the rate of increase the north pole is moving to how long it would take to become the south pole.

Earths Circumference is 24,901.55 miles. half way around is 12450.775 miles.
Current North pole movement 40 miles a year. So 12450.775 divided by 40= 311.26 years to flip at current rate.
Old rate of movement, 10 miles per year. So the speed has quadrupled in half a century. So, this will continue to exponentially rise?
A rise over the next half century if quadrupled will be around, 12450.775 divided by 160 miles = 77 to 311 years until it reaches a full flip.

slaterdom, home texas
March 22, 2013 1:43pm

"Guys: Do they not have pitot heaters anymore?? Just curious, as we had them when I was a pilot.."

They do.

Theirs happened to be a faulty design.


Another Nick, Alexandria VA
November 4, 2013 10:01am

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