A Flurry of Space Weather

July 20, 2017
Solar Max

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

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

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. SourceNASA

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

About This Blog

Mike Steinberg is Senior Vice President for Special Initiatives at AccuWeather Inc in State College, Pennsylvania. He is also a member of the National Weather Association and the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.