Sunday, August 29

Solar Cycle 24

Earth hit by solar storm, August 2010 - NASA photo
UPDATE August 30, 5:00 AM ET
Last night John Batchelor asked science writer and space exploration historian Robert Zimmerman about Solar Cycle 24. Bob's response cast into question recent reports about the cycle, which have raised alarms that SC24 could generate massive solar storms as the cycle reaches its maximum. (See post below.)

John asked about the spectacular solar storm that lit up the Earth's magnetic field (see the picture above) and Bob replied nonchalantly that it was actually a pretty weak storm LOL.

Bob said that SC24, which began in January 2008, is already showing signs that it will have a weak maximum. He also explained that scientists have projected that about every 200 years an entire solar cycle is weak and that the current cycle is showing signs of being that type. He added that if SC24 does turn out to be as weak as projected it would be arriving right on time -- 200 years after the last weak solar cycle!

So. Although I changed the original title of this post to reflect a toned-down view of SC24, I am leaving it up because it's a good reminder to this blogger and readers that the more dramatic the news report the more carefully it must be approached. I am keenly aware of this dictum when I take in foreign relations and defense news but I admit that news about the dramatic solar storm this month and equally dramatic reports about its implications took me off guard.

(The NASA report I linked to below, published at the start of SC24, is still useful background information on SC24.)

Someday, sure as rain, Earth will be visited by destructive solar storms -- but probably not during Solar Cycle 24 if Bob Zimmerman is correct -- and after listening to his illuminating discussions on Batchelor's show over the years I give attention to his knowledge of scientific opinion on space matters.

As of this time the podcast for the Sunday interview (11:50 PM; 11:00-12:00 podcast segment) is not yet posted to the WABC radio website; it should be available later today.
Solar Cycle 24 officially began on January 4, 2008 when astronomers noted the appearance of a reversed-polarity solar flare that was a mere dot, no wider than Earth, on the sun's vast surface. But Sunspot 981 was the harbinger of a solar storm so massive, worst-case scenario is that it will crash all the power grids on Earth. As to when the storm will strike, that's a matter of conjecture. It could be a century from now, or within the next year or two.

What has been established is that solar cycles occur in 11 year phases and that if history is a guide we're overdue for a 'big one.' Even if Solar Cycle 24 doesn't bring the big one, which can occur while a solar cycle is firing the maximum number of flares, a mini-big one during SC 24's maximum would still wreak havoc with satellites and global positioning systems.

If the big one hits in your lifetime don't worry, you won't fry or turn radioactive. It's just that if you train carrier pigeons or know how to work an abacus or slide rule you can name your price, at least until the engineers completely restore all the crashed electronic systems, which could take a year or maybe two or three or four.

But if you'd like to scare yourself silly, or you're one of those people who will be heartbroken if nothing terribly strange happens in 2012, you can read this article and focus on the worst-case predictions from scientists. The more phlegmatic Pundita readers can make do with this NASA report. And there's Wikipedia's article, for those who haven't the faintest idea what solar cycles do. They do a lot, including influencing the weather in space and Earth's climate.

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