A Flurry of Space Weather

January 14, 2013

This year will have a solar max, the peak of the sunspot cycle.

Credit: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory
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“Having a blast” isn’t always a good thing. When you are talking about space weather, solar storms and flares, the last thing this Earth needs is a blast.

As this year’s Old Farmer’s Almanac reports, 2013 is the peak of the solar sunspot cycle.

The sun goes through an eleven-year cycle of sunspot activity, going from a still, quiet surface to a period where the sun is ripped by tens, even hundreds of huge storms. These hurricane-like storms are cooler than the rest of the sun, so they look like dark dots. (Read more about sunspots.)

Just remember—those dots are huge, big enough that the Earth would be lost in the swirls.

When the sun reaches these peaks, the next three years have frequent storms, solar flares and gas explosions. When these explosions are big enough, the gas (called a coronal mass ejection or CME) flies through space and can even blast the Earth.

Our atmosphere protects us, but some of the electrical energy can penetrate and cause geomagnetic storms. The bigger storms can zap satellites and cause power surges, even blackouts, to electrical grids.

Scientists grabbed headlines last year by claiming that we could experience a “Global Katrina!”

Huge solar storms can affect satellites and electrical grids. Source – NASA

While it is possible to have a large storm, they are relatively rare and most blast out into space, missing the Earth. Most storms just cause radio static and auroras or northern lights, with the higher layers of Earth’s atmosphere absorbing most of the solar charges.

The current sunspot cycle has been relatively quiet, with fewer sunspots than most. Today, for example, there are only 126 spots, although one of the more impressive sunspots is 180,000 km (14 Earth diameters) from end to end. Indeed, some scientists are worried that the cycle may have peaked last year! The only problem is that even a relatively quiet cycle can produce a big storm. Read more about solar activity and solar cycle 24.

Sound scary? It’s enough of a problem that an international array of satellites and organizations has designed a global warning system to help power companies cope with any surges, if they come. So far, experts have coped with any and all storms that this cycle has produced.

So here’s hoping that the coping continues and all we get from 2013 is some radio static and pretty auroras. Here’s one year where we don’t want to have a blast!

2013 will be a year of auroras! Source -- NASA

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Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, blogger, writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac, and editor of The Browning Newsletter, has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.

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Comments

You seem to have forgotten (

By Jamiesan

You seem to have forgotten ( or deliberately omitted? ) the fact that our Magnetosphere is diminishing allowing for these streaming particles of solar emissions to penetrate well into Earth's atmosphere.Perhaps we should all take a page from Professor James Tracy's book and become better stewards of veritas, and, to always challenge the entrenched powers who strive to keep us completely ignorant of what is actually happening in space as well as on Earth.
With the government's technology being in advance of 50 years than what is currently known they should have been able to see this connection ( between the Sun and Earth ) long ago, and , the premise that this is all "new" science really insults my intelligence.

You may be interested in the

By jeltez42

You may be interested in the Van Allen Probes project. These 2 probes were launched June 2012 and are studying the Van Allen Belts. So far as what has been published, it seems as if these probes will allow us to know a lot more about the magnetosphere.

SOHO is another interesting project that is giving us a better understanding of the Sun. SOHO has changed how some people look at Space and Earth weather and are seeing the connection. Some others just don't want to look in that direction because they are not up on the subject.

There have been people seeing these connections for several hundred years. From a chemistry perspective, there is a connection between what is coming from the Sun and our atmosphere. UV light in the stratosphere effects Ozone and so does temperature of this layer. I will admit it is frustrating to hear some scientists who claim the changing Sun is insignificant in our changing climate and that the magnetosphere/ionosphere does not count either. I believe this is due to our very limited understanding of both the Sun and Earth.

I respect your intelligence.

By Evelyn Browning...

I respect your intelligence. The correlation between the solar activity and weather was noticed, but impossible to model. The latest research reflects the growing sophistication of computer models. We have recently seen new research that have been able to show the cause and effect relationships and model how they work.

Surely there are connections

By Word Warrier

Surely there are connections as to the peaking of flares/sunspots on weather. This year was recorded as the hottest since recording began.
We had Hurricane Sandy, the second Katrina, weird weather everywhere, warmer winters here in the NE but that changed last night. The planet Uranus in Aries brings increased aggression, violence,the Sandy school massacre, the gun issues to a head,
the revolts in Syria,the recent terrorist attack in the oil refinery, other revolts in Egypt, and other countries. We will see more
violence, craziness, natural disasters until the sun flares begin to recede and Uranus leaves Aries. I foresee a few revolts in our own country. We're all connected to the cosmos.We are affected.

The Earth is very small

By Evelyn Browning...

The Earth is very small compared to the sun. (A recent sunspot was as wide as the diameter of 14 Earths.) Its energy affects us.

I live in Alabama and does

By barbal72

I live in Alabama and does the sun cycle have anything to do with the el nino that never developed? In el nino winters the southern jet phases with the cold air and will sometimes bring rare winter storms to the deep south (but yet, this weather seems alot like an el nino) The sun has to be changing our weather just a little. Look at how weird this winter is. Alabama, Arkansas, Louisisana, Mississippi and Texas has had more snow than Chicago! The sun is probably largely responsible for this winters weather but of course thats just my opinion. North Carolina & Virginia was hit with a strong thundersnow but thats definitely not unheard of for the upper south and the mid atlantic. Whatever the reason, its beautiful. Upside down winters are my favorite

Most scientists still say no

By Evelyn Browning...

Most scientists still say no it doesn't.

However, there is new research and increasing evidence that it does. The solar flares affect the outer layer of the atmosphere. Newer computer models show that these changes in the outer layer affect the entire sky, including the winds and weather over the tropical Pacific. El Ninos are much less common and fail more frequently when the sun is at its peak.

Any chance these storms have

By Parched in West Texas

Any chance these storms have anything to do with the drought in the south west? Any thoughts yet on the summer monsoons that we depend on so much?

There actually is some

By Evelyn Browning...

There actually is some research suggesting La Ninas, cool tropical Pacific waters that create drought conditions in the Southwest, are more common during the peak of the sunspot cycle!

Right now, the experts are evenly on whether the Pacific will have a warm El Nino, a cool La Nina or be neutral this summer.The Pacific will shape the monsoon.

Could there be any auroras

By Brenda Lynn

Could there be any auroras that reach as far south as Virginia? I highly and by highly, I mean very highly doubt it will. I have seen the northern lights atleast a time or 2 in my life and what I remember, is that its amazing. Its a once in a lifetime chance to see these in the US. You may pick up some oppurtunities in norhern New England but thats about the only exception. But that doesent mean I cant dream, right?

It's not an unrealistic

By Evelyn Browning...

It's not an unrealistic dream. At the peak of the last cycle, there was one that came all the way to New Mexico and we are south of you!

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