Solar Storms Building Toward Peak in 2013, NASA Predicts

by Clara Moskowitz, SPACE.com Assistant Managing Editor
Date: 09 August 2011 Time: 05:06 PM ET

This image from the Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the X6.9 solar flare of Aug. 9, 2011 near the western limb (right edge) of the sun. CREDIT: NASA/SDO/Weather.com

Solar flares like the huge one that erupted on the sun early today (Aug. 9) will only become more common as our sun nears its maximum level of activity in 2013, scientists say.

Tuesday’s flare was the most powerful sun storm since 2006, and was rated an X6.9 on the three-class scale for solar storms (X-Class is strongest, with M-Class in the middle and C-Class being the weakest).

Flares such as this one could become the norm soon, though, as our sun’s 11-year cycle of magnetic activity ramps up, scientists explained. The sun is just coming out of a lull, and scientists expect the next peak of activity in 2013. The current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008.

“We still are on the upswing with this recent burst of activity,” said Phil Chamberlin, a solar scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who is a deputy project scientist for the agency’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a sun-studying satellite that launched in February 2010. “We could definitely in the next year or two see more events like this; there’s a potential to see larger events as well.”

A more active sun

Earth got lucky with the most recent flare, which wasn’t pointed directly at Earth; therefore, it didn’t send the brunt of its charged particles toward us, but out into space. However, we may not be so fortunate in the future, experts warned.

“We’re in the new cycle, it is building and we’ll see events like this one,” said Joe Kunches, a space scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “They’ll be much more commonplace and we’ll get more used to them.”

Spacecraft such as the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), which recorded amazing videos of the Aug. 9 solar flare, and other observatories will be vital in monitoring the sun during its active phase, researchers said.

How sun storms form

Storms brew on the sun when pent-up energy from tangled magnetic field lines is released in the form of light, heat and charged particles. This can create a brightening on the sun called a flare, and is also often accompanied by the release of a cloud of plasma called a coronal mass ejection (CME).

These ejections are the part we Earthlings have to worry about.

As the CME careens through space, it can send a horde of charged particles toward our planet that can damage satellites, endanger astronauts in orbit, and interfere with power systems, communications and other infrastructure on the ground.

“We’re well aware of the difficulties and challenges,” Kunches told SPACE.com. “We know more about the sun than we ever have.”

Can we predict solar storms?

When a big storm occurs, the Space Weather Prediction Center releases a warning to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, emergency managers and agencies responsible for protecting power grids. Then power grids can distribute power and reduce their loads to protect themselves.

Satellite and power companies are also trying to design technology that can better withstand the higher radiation loads unleashed by solar storms.

Still, scientists would like to offer more advanced warnings when big storms are headed our way.

“We’re being reactive, we’re not being proactive,” Chamberlin said. “We don’t know how to predict these things, which would be nice.”

Chamberlin said solar science has come a long way in recent years, though, and the goal of SDO and other NASA projects is to improve our understanding of the sun and our ability to forecast space weather.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Solar Storms Building Toward Peak in 2013, NASA Predicts | Solar Flares & Storms | Space & Solar Weather | Space.com.

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Huge Sunquakes Triggered by Solar Eruptions

Massive solar wind bursts and magnetic fields can cause ripples on sun’s surface

By Kat Piper
Epoch Times Staff
Created: March 30, 2012
Last Updated: April 4, 2012

Massive bursts of solar wind and magnetic fields from the Sun can cause huge sunquakes, according to new UK research.

The results of the study, led by University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, are being presented by Dr Sergei Zharkovat at the National Astronomy Meeting 2012 in Manchester on Friday, March 30.

Research over the last 10 years has shown that sunquakes can be produced when solar flares—huge explosions of energy in the Sun’s atmosphere—impact and travel into the Sun. The quakes appear as circular ripples on the surface of the Sun.

The new study shows that eruptions of charged particles and magnetic fields known as Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are also able to produce sunquakes.

“Sunquakes are generated by solar flares, when enormous amounts of energy are released high up in the solar atmosphere. Most of the energy goes up into interplanetary space, but a fraction of this energy travels to the Sun’s surface creating a sonic boom that causes the solar interior to oscillate and produce the ripples,” explained Zharkov in an email.

“I sometimes think of sunquakes as thunder to the flare’s lightning, except imagine a lightning over an ocean that is so strong that it creates a tsunami.”

The researchers studied an eruption that took place on Feb. 15, 2011. They found that sunquakes 1,000 times more powerful than the March 2011 Japanese earthquake were triggered at two ends of the erupting rope of magnetic field. The sudden expansion of the magnetic field as it erupts is thought to play a part in the generation of the sunquakes.

The eruption travelled through our solar system at around 600 kilometres per second (1.34 million miles per hour) towards Earth, causing a geomagnetic storm and aurora when it hit the Earth’s atmosphere.

It is for this reason that study of sunquakes is of interest, especially as solar activity is predicted to increase and peak in 2013.

“Sunquakes themselves do not have [an] impact on Earth as they are acoustic waves travelling inside the Sun. But flares and, accompanying them, Coronal Mass Ejections that we have shown play an important role in generating sunquakes, can and do impact Earth,” Zharkov said.

“Sunquakes now form an integral part for our search for understanding of flare and CME phenomena.”

Flares and CMEs have a direct impact on space weather, so understanding how they form could help in predicting when they are going to occur and planning for possible geomagnetic storms, which can affect satellites and radio and GPS equipment on Earth.

But sunquakes are relatively rare, explained Zharkhov. “Known sunquakes were all generated by string solar flares (X and M class), which occur only during the active part of an [11-year] Solar Cycle. However, only a small fraction of such flares produce sunquakes,” he said.

“There is also a chance, however, that sunquakes are more common than we think; it’s just that our means of detecting them are not yet up to scratch.”

Until recently, observation of sunquakes had been hampered by availability of data. “With the (relatively) new NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite providing us with practically continuous high resolution and high cadence observations of the Sun, this problem is now solved,” Zharkov said.

Much like geologists use earthquakes to understand the internal structure of our planet, future research will be focused on using sunquakes to learn more about the internal processes of the Sun, said Zharkov. As scientists still don’t fully understand how sunquakes are generated, research will also continue to look for physical explanations of this solar phenomenon.

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Huge Sunquakes Triggered by Solar Eruptions | Space & Astronomy | Science | Epoch Times.

Little Ice Age II, The Sequel?

Submitted by Doug L. Hoffman on Tue, 06/09/2009 – 15:38

The lingering cool temperatures being experience by much of North America has weather forecasters wondering if we are entering a new Little Ice Age—a reference to the prolonged period of cold weather that afflicted the world for centuries and didn’t end until just prior to the American Civil War. From historical records, scientists have found a strong correlation between low sunspot activity and a cooling climate. At the end of May, an international panel of experts led by NOAA and sponsored by NASA released a new prediction for the next solar cycle: Solar Cycle 24 will be one of the weakest in recent memory. Are we about to start a new Little Ice Age?

According to the report, Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with a sunspot count well below average. “If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78,” says panel chairman Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. This does not mean that we won’t feel the results of renewed solar storm activity here on Earth.

“Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather,” points out Biesecker. “The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we’re predicting for 2013.” A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a storm similar to the 1859 disturbance—known as the “Carrington Event” after astronomer Richard Carrington who observed the associated solar flare—occurred today, it could cause $1 to 2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery. Reportedly, the 1859 storm electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their glow.

As we reported in Chapter 10 of The Resilient Earth, the most interesting feature of sunspots is that their number increases and decreases in a regular rhythm over about a decade. This regular cycle was first noticed by the German astronomer Samuel Heinrich Schwabe in 1843. This has become known as the solar magnetic activity cycle, or sunspot cycle. The number of sunspots in each cycle is not constant; there have been periods where many sunspots were observed, and others when sunspots seem to disappear altogether. Sightings from China, Korea and Japan between 28 BC and 1743 AD averaged only six sunspots per year. None were observed between 1639 and 1700, a period know as the Maunder Minimum.

The period from roughly 1300 to 1850 is known as the “Little Ice Age,” a period characterized by unusually long and cold winters. Some confine the Little Ice Age to approximately the 16th century to the mid 19th century, but it is generally agreed that there were three temperature minima, occurring around 1650, 1770, and 1850. Each minima separated by slight warming intervals. These periods coincides closely with times of solar inactivity, with some of the worst weather occurring squarely during the Maunder Minimum.

The Maunder Minimum is named after the English astronomer Edward W. Maunder (1851-1928). From studying historical records of sunspot counts, called the sunspot number, Maunder discovered that sunspots were virtually absent during this period, and disappeared altogether during the decade starting in 1670. Astronomers observed only about 50 sunspots during the 70 year period from 1645 to 1715. Normal sunspot activity would have produced 40,000 to 50,000 sunspots.

Already in the midst of the Little Ice Age’s colder than average climate, Europe and North America went into a deep freeze: alpine glaciers extended over valley farmland, sea ice crept south from the Arctic, and the famous canals in the Netherlands froze regularly—an event that is rare today. In London, ice festivals were held on the frozen Themes and in New York City people could walk to Manhattan and Staten Island on the ice. On the down side, crops failed and many died of the cold.

In 1991, a pair of Danish meteorologists published a paper in which they pointed out a remarkably strong correlation between the length of the solar activity cycle and the global mean temperature in the northern hemisphere. Not all activity cycles are the same length, with longer cycles of 12-14 years duration seeming to indicate cooler global temperatures than shorter 9-10 year cycles. It is difficult to assess the effect of recent solar cycles on global climate, let alone those from the Maunder minimum, because of the relatively short time span for which detailed observations exist. Climate data for the past 100 years are spotty enough, climate records become sparse to nonexistent when looking back more than a century.

The correlation between temperature and sunspot activity has been commented on before on this site (see “Scientists Discover The Sun Does Affect Earth’s Climate”), so I will not go into great detail about it here. However, it is interesting to note that a comparison of sea surface temperature and the number of observed sunspots over the past 150 years or so yeilds an astoundingly close match—much closer than the correlation between CO2 and temperature.

Scientists are not sure how solar activity and space weather are linked to climate here on Earth. They do know that the last time sunspots all but disappeared for an extended period of time our planet experienced a dramatic downswing in temperature. Right now, the solar cycle is in a valley—the deepest of the past century. In 2008 and 2009, the sun set modern records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind, and low solar irradiance.

There are variations in the 11 year cycle and other cycles of longer duration also seem to be at work here. Naturally, scientists have tried to predict the changing activity of the sun by examining the historical records and, more recently, using computer models. This is not to say that the predictions are always correct, no one correctly predicted the current ebb in solar activity. “In our professional careers, we’ve never seen anything quite like it,” said Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Cente. “Solar minimum has lasted far beyond the date we predicted in 2007.”

“It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” admited Pesnell, NASA’s lead representative on the prediction panel. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.” Though the face of the sun is not as blemish free as it was a few months ago, the latest images from SOHO show sunspot activity is picking up a bit. But the current level of activity is still quite low. In fact, the sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare. What does this portend for the weather here on planet Earth?

According to expert long-range forecaster Joe Bastardi, areas from the northern Plains into the Northeast will have a “year without a summer.” This is a reference to the year 1816, also known as the Poverty Year, during which severe and abnormally cold summer weather destroyed crops in Northern Europe, the American Northeast and eastern Canada. According to Bastardi the jet stream is displaced abnormally southward this spring, which is suppressing the number of thunderstorms that can form. The ones that do form in areas of the Ohio Valley and West are forming in places with very cold temperatures, which can lead to thunderstorms more electrically active than normal.

Despite claims by global warming activists that rising temperatures are extending growing seasons around the world, the opposite seems to be happening this year. Cool weather has pushed growth of Western Canada’s wheat and barley crop at least 10 days behind schedule, according to the Canadian Wheat Board. “You’re pushing development into a period with better likelihood of getting a frost,” said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and market analysis for the Canadian Wheat Board. “It’s not particularly what we need at this moment. It’s just too cool.”

Proving that this isn’t only a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, Brazil may cut this year’s corn output forecast for a third consecutive time, as a frost in several states caused more crop damage. According to Silvio Porto, agriculture policy director, corn growers may harvest less than the 49.9 million metric tons forecast previously announced as frost struck Parana and Mato Grosso do Sul states in the past two weeks. “It’s a worrying situation as corn has already suffered with a severe drought,” Porto said. “Still, it’s too early to know the size of the damage.”

New record cold temperatures have been seen in a number of locations around the world, marking this as one of the coldest springs in years. With reports of late season frost and snow falls, some are already forecasting a very cool summer. Not trying to sound alarmist or start any rumors but scientists’ best conjecture regarding the conditions that signal the start of a new glacial period are cool, cloudy summers. Is this the beginning of Little Ice Age II, the sequel? If so, we will look back fondly on the time we were all so concerned about global warming. Remember, in the words of SF author Orson Scott Card, “’global warming’ is just another term for ‘good weather.’”

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

via Little Ice Age II, The Sequel? | The Resilient Earth.