Thursday, July 30, 2009

Our climate, the weather, our grid and the Sun

Sun entering weakest cycle since 1928
NOAA releases new predictions for solar cycle
The sun has entered its weakest cycle of magnetic activity since 1928, meaning fewer solar flares and coronal mass ejections, scientists predicted in a May 8 teleconference. A panel of solar scientists assembled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center reports that the cycle, which scientists believe began in December 2008, will peak in May 2013.

Storms of solar magnetic activity cause flares and ejections that can spit X-rays, UV light and billions of tons of charged particles into space, and toward Earth. These outbursts can make Earth’s upper atmosphere expand, potentially knocking out electrical grids and disrupting satellite communications — and can harm spacewalking astronauts.

“It’s fair to say we probably won’t see a whole lot of solar storms from this cycle,” Douglas Biesecker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colo., said at the teleconference. “But a weaker cycle won’t lessen the intensity of the storms, just the number of them.” [...]

I had done an earlier post about the current solar minimum being extended, almost two years longer than it's expected cycle. The decrease in sunspot activity seems to coincide with colder than normal temperatures globally.

I can only wonder, if solar activity can slow down to the point where it extends beyond it's predicted cycle, might it not also move in the other direction too? Sort of like a pendulum, that swings in one direction, then back again an equal distance in the opposite direction? If we see below normal sunspot activity now, will we see higher than normal activity later?

The first article mentioned above made reference to solar storms. The earth has experienced many solar storms in it's past, but not any really big ones since humankind began using electricity on a large scale. The last great solar storm happened in 1859:

Relatively mild sunspot cycle predicted, but even 1 solar storm can damage Earth
WASHINGTON — When the sun sneezes it’s Earth that gets sick.

It’s time for the sun to move into a busier period for sunspots, and while forecasters expect a relatively mild outbreak by historical standards, one major solar storm can cause havoc with satellites and electrical systems here.

Like hurricanes, a weak cycle refers to the number of storms, but it only takes one powerful storm to create chaos, said scientist Doug Biesecker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s space weather prediction center.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a storm as severe as one in 1859 occurred today, it could cause $1 trillion to $2 trillion in damage the first year and take four to 10 years to recover.

The 1859 storm shorted out telegraph wires, causing fires in North America and Europe, sent readings of Earth’s magnetic field soaring, and produced northern lights so bright that people read newspapers by their light.

Today there’s a lot more than telegraph lines at stake. Vulnerable electrical grids circle the globe, satellites now vital for all forms of communications can be severely disrupted along with the global positioning system. Indeed, the panel warned that a strong blast of solar wind can threaten national security, transportation, financial services and other essential functions.

The solar prediction center works closely with industry and government agencies to make sure they are prepared with changes in activity and prepared to respond when damage occurs, Biesecker said in a briefing.

While the most extreme events seem unlikely this time, there will probably be smaller scale disruptions to electrical service, airline flights, GPS signals and television, radio and cell phones. [...]

Read the whole thing. It says that sunspot measuring has been going on since the 1750's. When it comes to climate and weather, most of us only think in terms of what we've experienced directly, in our lifetime. But there is so much more historically. It's too easy to get hysterical about climate change, without that historical understanding of past changes and a scientific understanding of all the factors affecting our climate and weather, the sun being the most powerful.

People fear what they don't understand. If we understand the dynamics of climate change on earth, we can adapt to it when necessary and work with the ebb and flow of nature, instead of uselessly struggling to control it. We simply cannot control the sun.

Another article from NASA that mentions the 1859 solar storm:

New Solar Cycle Prediction
[...] It is tempting to describe such a cycle as "weak" or "mild," but that could give the wrong impression.

"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."

The 1859 storm--known as the "Carrington Event" after astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare--electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their red and green glow. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm 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. For comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused "only" $80 to 125 billion in damage. [...]

I'm not saying it's going to happen again soon. But it is likely to happen again sometime. And those who know the history of the sun and it's potential behaviors won't be taken completely by surprise by it. And hopefully, will be prepared for it. Katrina was also predicted, and would have been less damaging if more people had paid attention and acted accordingly.


Shaku said...


Great post, and very informative thank you!

What stance do you have on cycle 24 with the slow start and low activity levels?

Chas said...

Thanks Shaku,

I made this post in 2009; solar activity has increased a lot since then, and it's not unheard of for the cycle to have a late start.

I do wonder if the slow start and low activity levels at the beginning, could mean that it's going to finish with a stronger than usual surge. We can only wait and see.

Whatever happens though, I think we have to be concerned about our increasingly vulnerable high-tech infrastructure. I've done a post about satellites in particular:

Our growing reliance on satellite technology, and it's vulnerability to solar flares. Why it matters.

In that post, I said:

"...humankind is using and depending on satellite technology to a degree never seen before, and most of the growth of this usage has occurred in the past few decades.

We have gone from 15 communication satellites in 1981, to 1,899 communication satellites in 2010. We have yet to experience a severe solar storm, with all this satellite technology. Are we ready for it? Military satellites may be reinforced with extra shielding to withstand EMPs. But what about the many light-weight "cheap" satellites made with off the shelf parts? Are we ready to suddenly do without all this technology we've come to depend on, if many or most of these satellites get fried in a solar storm?"

It could happen at any time, regardless of the solar cycle. The Carrington Event of 1859 happened during a solar minimum.

It would only take one large solar flare that happens to be aimed at earth... to cause us serious, even catastrophic problems.

I think we need to do more to be prepared for the possibility. But I suspect most people will be happy to ignore it, until something happens that makes it "real" for them. Such is human nature.

Perhaps the first time it happens, it will be a large "small" flare, a moderate "warning", a wake-up call, rather than a full-scale catastrophe. We can only hope.