It's official: this solar maximumis the weakest in over a century, according to a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Speaking on the weak solar activity, Leif Svalgaard of Stanford University told reporters that "none of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle. So we will learn something.”
Needless to say, this only confirms what many knew already.
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. The good news: with this weak cycle, we will have a years-long reprieve during which we can make such improvements to our technology.
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