NASA scientists who specialize in solar studies are having a very difficult time in determining hat the Sun is doing. Why? This solar cycle, forecast to peak this year, has already peaked, way back in 2011, 2 years ahead of schedule. These findings come by way of the monitoring of both sunspots and radio waves emanating from our nearest star.
Commenting on the research, Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Spaceflight Center commented that “this is solar maximum . . . but it looks different than predicted.” Pesnell ent on to point out that solar cycle times can vary from 10 to 13 years and that the last two peaks were actually double peaked, with activity rising as predicted, dropping, and then resuming before trailing off for good.
End result: right now, with fewer sunspots and their often energy-erupting magnetic fields, the chances for aurora (the Northern or Southern Lights) will be greatly diminished this solar cycle. While bad news for astronomers looking to observe aurora and/or the Sun itself, this news is good for a lot of other people.
A solar storm could very well change our way of life, that is the warning from scientists as recent solar activity has many concerned that the life-giving Sun could be gearing up for a killer storm. No, the storm will not be at risk for killing humans in and of itself, but it may pose a serious risk to electronic devices, which play a larger part of modern life than many people appreciate.
As the Sun becomes more active as it nears solar maximum, the chances for Earthly impacts of solar storms increases dramatically. When the highly-charged particles of the solar wind hit our upper atmosphere, they interact with Earth's magnetic field, causing disruptions in electronic communications and power grids. One job for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is to keep an eye on solar weather which, NOAA warns could have dire effects for us on Earth.
So, if the Sun has always gone through an 11-year cycle of activity, why all the panic now?
Answer: the concern comes from our way of life. When the Sun was at its last peak period in the early 2000s, we were nowhere near as reliant on satellites as we are today. Think back to 2001, far fewer people had a cellphone in their pocket, a GPS unit in their car, and satellite TV in their house. Now, while losing anyone of these conveniences (imagine having to actually read a map!) would be a minor irritation, the fact that solar storms can damage power grids can have massive implications. In March 1989 (during the Sun's maximum 2 cycles ago) a massive solar storm knocked out power over a large section of Canada. The frightening fact, in the larger scheme of things, this storm wasn't that big, certainly not the perfect solar super storm. Worst case scenario: if transformers and capacitors were really fried, power could be out for months, essentially transporting us back to the pre-industrial age.
Hopefully, neither you nor a relative will be in a hospital if that ever happens.
The good news is that, while our technology is making us more susceptible to the impact of solar activity, it can also help prevent the problem. As scientists learn more about the solar wind and what it can do, more protections can be built-in to our electronics to better ensure that they don't get fried by a powerful blast of solar energy.
Either way, with solar maximum rapidly approaching (and even though this one will probably be a dud), it will still provide scientists with a multitude of opportunities to study the Sun and develop new ways to shield our delicate electronics from the awesome power of the Sun.
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