A rogue flare, a solar tsunami of 100 times a normal flare would release the energy equivalent of billions of hydrogen bombs and spew into space hundred of billions of tons of murderous gamma rays that could overwhelm the natural defenses of the Earth's magnetosphere and atmosphere and zap all living creatures in its path. And mostly the most fascinating fact about this gruesome scenario is that it would leave no, zero, trace in history.
The solar cycle, or the solar magnetic activity cycle, is the dynamical engine and energy source behind all solar phenomena driving space weather. So news that Solar Cycle 24 is beginning is more than just interesting astronomical information. Solar activity can have real life, every day consequences.
“This sunspot is like the first robin of spring,” said solar physicist Douglas Biesecker of NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. “In this case, it’s an early omen of solar storms that will gradually increase over the next few years.”
This robin – a reversed-polarity sunspot – has been eagerly awaited by many. A group of solar experts predicted that this sunspot – which heralds the arrival of a new cycle – would come March of this year. But they could not be certain, giving a period of 6 months on either side margin of error.
All of this is not official yet though, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) must still officially announce the beginning of the new 11 year solar cycle. According to reports, the NOAA wants to see more spots and disruptions on the sun before they officially announce that Solar Cycle 24 has taken over.
As for “real life consequences,” a high period of solar activity – expected during the solar cycles peak in 2011/12 – plays havoc with much of the electrical equipment here on Earth. GPS signals, power grids, cell phones, civilian and airline communications, military communications and a whole lot more are just waiting to fritz out due to increased solar activity.
An example of such an outage came in 1989, in Canada’s province of Quebec, when thanks to a major solar storm, the entire provinces power-grid was knocked offline.
“Our growing dependence on highly sophisticated, space-based technologies means we are far more vulnerable to space weather today than in the past,” said Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Jr., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “NOAA’s space weather monitoring and forecasts are critical for the nation’s ability to function smoothly during solar disturbances.”
The only reason that Earth experiences these issues though is due to the increased activity, during what is called a Solar Maximum. The rest of the time, our planet’s magnetic field protects us from the odd solar burp.
On January 20th, 2005... a giant sunspot named "NOAA 720" exploded. The blast sparked an X-class solar flare, the most powerful kind, and hurled a billion-ton cloud of electrified gas (a "coronal mass ejection") into space. Solar protons accelerated to nearly light speed by the explosion reached the Earth-Moon system minutes after the flare--the beginning of a days-long "proton storm."
"The Moon is totally exposed to solar flares," explains solar physicist David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center. "It has no atmosphere or magnetic field to deflect radiation." Protons rushing at the Moon simply hit the ground--or whoever might be walking around outside.
The January 20th proton storm was by some measures the biggest since 1989. It was particularly rich in high-speed protons packing more than 100 million electron volts (100 MeV) of energy. Such protons can burrow through 11 centimeters of water. A thin-skinned spacesuit would have offered little resistance.
"An astronaut caught outside when the storm hit would've gotten sick," says Francis Cucinotta, NASA's radiation health officer at the Johnson Space Center. At first, he'd feel fine, but a few days later symptoms of radiation sickness would appear: vomiting, fatigue, low blood counts. These symptoms might persist for days.
A simple precaution for future moon exploration: Like explorers on Earth, astronauts can check the weather forecast--the space weather forecast. Are there any big 'spots on the sun? What's the chance of a proton storm? Is a coronal mass ejection coming?
On Earth, no one suffered because the planet's thick atmosphere and magnetic field protects us from protons and other forms of solar radiation. In fact, the storm was good. When the plodding coronal mass ejection arrived 36 hours later and hit Earth's magnetic field, sky watchers in Europe saw the brightest and most stunning auroras in years.
But a rogue solar flare tsunami might be a different story:
An often unacknowledged fact of life on Earth is the fact that species death is a way of life. It's estimated that between thirty billion and 4,0000 billion species of organisms have existed since life began. A number that is certain, however, is the fact that 99.99 percent of all species that ever lived, are no longer walking, crawling, burrowing, or breathing on Earth.
In short, most species have an average lifespan of about four million years -just about were the species homo sapiens is right now. The five major extinction events that have ravaged the planet have been blamed on oxygens depletion of the seas, giant asteroid and comet impacts, massive volcanic upwelling, epidemics, leaks of methane gas from the sea floor, global warming, global cooling leading to Snowball Earth, and, perhaps most lethal of all, catastrophic solar flares.
Since we've only been tracking solar flares since the beginning of the Space Age, we have no real idea of how massive solar flares can become. A solar flare occurs when magnetic energy that has built up in the solar atmosphere is suddenly released. Radiation is emitted across virtually the entire electromagnetic spectrum, from radio waves at the long wavelength end, through optical emission to x-rays and gamma rays at the short wavelength end. The amount of energy released from a single flare is the equivalent of millions of 100-megaton hydrogen bombs exploding simultaneously!
With a natural cycle averaging out at approximately 11 years, the sun is typically a storm of flares and sun-spots the size of planets, causing electromagnetic havoc and radiation problems within its sphere of influence. That influence can reach all the way to earth, and will often trouble astronauts who have to deal with the heightened levels of radiation as they patrol the skies.
It looks as if that this won’t be a problem for the next little while, with the sun being observed to have fallen in to a solar-minimum; essentially, a time of very little activity.
According to a report by NASA the sun is almost spotless. This lack of sun spots can often last for up to several days, and marks the epoch of the solar-cycle.
Over time, the sunspots will restart marking the beginning of the next cycle, and they will build to what is obviously known as the solar-maximum, a time denoted retroactively as being the time of greatest activity on the suns surface.
This activity consists of the creation of sunspots – a region of the photosphere of the sun that is marked by a drop in temperature compared to that around it – and solar flares – a violent explosion in the atmosphere of the sun that heats plasma up to millions of kelvins.
Posted by Josh Hill.