The Heat is On—Barely

sungirl3

Hey y’all.  It’s the hottest part of summer and smack dab in the middle of another Solar Maximum (five years in, to be exact).  Best you be bustin’ out the popsicles and the coconut sun tan lotion now before your chance is gone.  I say that because this solar maximum isn’t all that maxed-out.  As a matter of fact, it’s really puny when you compare it with other Solar Maximums in the past.

The cycle is fairly simple.  Every eleven years, we start off with low solar activity, which gradually builds up so that by midpoint, roughly around the fifth or sixth year, we see high solar activity, which then tapers off and the cycle ends with another span of low activity.  The highs and lows vary cycle by cycle, but they always come.

The cycle we are currently living through is Cycle 24, not because there has ever only been twenty-four cycles but because modern astronomers have only been monitoring sun cycles since 1755, and we had to start the count somewhere.  Prior to that, ancient astronomers had been monitoring celestial movements using state-of-the-art stone tools, but what they know and how they figured it out is another post for another day.  This post is only concerned with this most recent cycle.

How is a cycle determined?  Does some big wig announcer on national television decides one day that it would be a good time to announce to the world that a new Solar Maximum has started?  Fortunately, this is not the case.  It begins with a simple reversed-polarity sunspot.  It may be only a fraction of a second in length, but that is all that it takes.  Back on January 4, 2008, a reversed-polarity sunspot was observed by scientists, which heralded in the start of a new cycle, Solar Cycle 24.  I remember reading about it at the time and was intensely curious as to what (if any) untoward happenings would occur.  Well, other than the huge financial crash of 2008, not much else has happened since then, even despite the comings and goings of December 21, 2012.

To get back to the matter, there is still time for something to occur, if anything is going to occur.  We are only five years into this cycle, and by rights. there should be some activity.  As I noted in my previous posts (There’s a Black Spot on the Sun Today, and She Blows Hot and Cold), there is plenty of action—just not as many as there should be, and certainly not as BIG.

How much activity and how big should there be?  To get averages, we have to go back to previous cycles and compare/contrast the differences.  Here’s what past cycles show:

recentcycles

Compared to cycles 21, 22, and 23, this one is a midget.  It is seriously under-performing when compared with its past siblings.  But that’s not a fair assessment because it may just be that the Sun happened to have gone through three periods of fairly strong Solar Maximums.  We need to take a look at Cycle 24 in comparison with the weaker cycles to get an idea of where on the puny scale it lands.

To risk sounding like I am comparing penises, here is the comparison chart for the small guys of the Solar Maximum world.  (Note that the biggest peak of this graph below does not even reach 100 whereas the chart above has peaks that go past 160.)

similarcycles So now we have a more even playing field.  Of all the short guys, our very own Cycle 24 barely holds his own alongside Cycle 12 and Cycle 14.  In fact, scientists are hoping that we will have some sort of a revival and bump up at the last minute, just like Cycles 16 and 12 did.  But so far, no cigar, as this cycle rolls towards its inevitable demise.  Five more years and it’s back down to a Solar Minimum again, which means minimal sunspots and minimal magnetic influences that will hit Earth.

So how does this Solar Cycle 24 affect Earth (and us)?  That’s a question that even the angels barely dare to tread on.

(Continue to Ocean Heat—Hot Surfer Dudes vs. Scientists)

Graphs taken from www.solen.info

Advertisements

Sunny to the Max

Anime-Girl-Boy-Beach

Girl:  Look at the gorgeous sun!  Isn’t it lovely?  Doesn’t it fill your spirit with so much joy?
Boy:  We just had a couple of Earth-directed coronal mass ejections today.  That means that between now and July 19, 2013, it’s gonna hit us.  Ask me again in three days and if I don’t answer my cell phone, don’t blame it on me.  Blame it on the sun knocking out our satellite communications.

So it’s finally here, summer of 2013, the predicted time when old Sol will hit the solar maximum.  This means we are approximately halfway through the eleven-year cycle.  This cycle starts with a minimum and ends with a minimum.  In between these minimums, there is a peak, the maximum.  Since the sun’s activities seem to have increased more than usual as compared to the last five-and-a-half years, scientists are tentatively calling this summer the summer of the solar maximum.  And as the boy in the above picture says, we just got a doozie of a mass ejection today.

The sun, unlike a big lump of clay, has plasma and magnetic fields so it rotates at different speeds and different directions when measured at various depths and latitudes.  All these different speeds and directions cause plasma and the magnetic fields to criss-cross, and get all tangled up.  Since Sol doesn’t like to get that kinked up, he usually sorts himself out by reconfiguring all those tangled magnetic lines, exchanging and mixing up those lines to form new lines, and then straighten those new lines into new formations.

magneticreconnection

Once the lines are no longer tangled, the magnetic lines SNAP back into place, like a rubber band.  It is that SNAP which releases huge amounts of energy and light called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs)[1]

But CMEs are not all the same.  Small CME flashes are called solar flares.  They are brief and don’t have the power to penetrate Earth’s multi-layered magnetic field.  Huge CMEs however, are another thing.  They are not flashes.  They are big blobs of charged particles—a billion tons of plasma, and they have the force and weight behind them to travel great distances at speeds that approach 8 million kilometers per hour.    

These CMEs are the full force of the sun, coming right atcha.  They have the energy to melt power transformers, knock out communication satellites, and disrupt GPS.  In essence, we would be blind, deaf, and mute, all at the same time (and on top of that, I would get lost if I happened to be on the road, trying to follow Siri’s directions). [2]

The last time one of these huge plasma clouds hit Earth was back on September 1, 1859.  That CME fried all the telegraph cables and caused sparks and fires at telegraph stations.  We haven’t seen anything like that ever since, but to be on the safe side, try to resist the urge to sunbathe for the next few days.  Your body will thank you for not subjecting it to all that cancerous radiation.

Let’s hope this one is a nice mild one.

1.  July 16, 2013 – The Sun Erupted With An Earth-Directed CME

2.  Here comes the solar maximum: What we know – and don’t know – about solar storms and their hazards