A Storm is coming

Researchers announced that a storm is coming

The most intense solar maximum in fifty years is coming. The prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). "The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one," she says. If correct, the years ahead could produce a burst of solar activity second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958.

The sun emitted its first X-class flare in more than four years on February 14 at 8:56 p.m. EST.
Active region 1158 let loose with an X2.2 flare late on February 15, the largest flare since Dec. 2006
That was a solar maximum. The Space Age was just beginning: Sputnik was launched in Oct. 1957 and Explorer 1 (the first US satellite) in Jan. 1958. In 1958 you couldn't tell that a solar storm was underway by looking at the bars on your cell phone; cell phones didn't exist. Even so, people knew something big was happening when Northern Lights were sighted three times in Mexico. A similar maximum now would be noticed by its effect on cell phones, GPS, weather satellites and many other modern technologies.
But today a similar solar maximum would cause major problems in our technological addicted societies

The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem four years ago in a landmark report entitled "Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts." It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

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.
Researchers have known about the solar cycle since the mid-1800s. Graphs of sunspot numbers resemble a roller coaster, going up and down with an approximately 11-year period. At first glance, it looks like a regular pattern, but predicting the peaks and valleys has proven troublesome. Cycles vary in length from about 9 to 14 years. Some peaks are high, others low. The valleys are usually brief, lasting only a couple of years, but sometimes they stretch out much longer.

In the 17th century the sun plunged into a 70-year period of spotlessness known as the Maunder Minimum that still baffles scientists.

Yearly-averaged sunspot numbers from 1610 to 2008. Researchers believe upcoming Solar Cycle 24 will be similar to the cycle that peaked in 1928, marked by a red arrow. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Right now, the solar cycle is leaving a valley-the deepest of the past century. In 2008 and 2009, the sun set Space Age records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind, and low solar irradiance. The sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare.
In recent months, however, the sun has begun to show timorous signs of life. Sunspots and "proto-sunspots are popping up with increasing frequency. Enormous currents of plasma on the sun’s surface ("zonal flows") are gaining strength and slowly drifting toward the sun’s equator. Scientists predict the maximum to be reached by 2012-2013.

Much of the damage can be mitigated if managers know a storm is coming. Putting satellites in 'safe mode' and disconnecting transformers can protect these assets from damaging electrical surges. Preventative action, however, requires accurate forecasting—a job that has been assigned to NOAA.
"Space weather forecasting is still in its infancy, but we're making rapid progress," says Thomas Bogdan, director of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Bogdan sees the collaboration between NASA and NOAA as key. "NASA's fleet of heliophysics research spacecraft provides us with up-to-the-minute information about what's happening on the sun. They are an important complement to our own GOES and POES satellites, which focus more on the near-Earth environment."

Among dozens of NASA spacecraft, he notes three of special significance:

Our first line of defense. Credit: Sérgio Sousa

STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) is a pair of spacecraft stationed on opposite sides of the sun with a combined view of 90% of the stellar surface. In the past, active sunspots could hide out on the sun's farside, invisible from Earth, and then suddenly emerge over the limb spitting flares and CMEs. STEREO makes such surprise attacks impossible.

SDO (the Solar Dynamics Observatory) is the newest addition to NASA's fleet. Just launched in February, it is able to photograph solar active regions with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution. Researchers can now study eruptions in exquisite detail, raising hopes that they will learn how flares work and how to predict them. SDO also monitors the sun's extreme UV output, which controls the response of Earth's atmosphere to solar variability.

As the Sun Awakens... (solar prominence, 200px)
On April 19, 2010, SDO observed one of the most massive eruptions in years. Earth was not in the line of fire ... this time

Bogdan's favorite NASA satellite, however, is an old one: the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) launched in 1997. "Where would we be without it?" he wonders. ACE is a solar wind monitor. It sits upstream between the sun and Earth, detecting solar wind gusts, billion-ton CMEs, and radiation storms as much as 30 minutes before they hit our planet.
"ACE is our best early warning system," says Bogdan. "It allows us to notify utility and satellite operators when a storm is about to hit.”

NASA spacecraft were not originally intended for operational forecasting—"but it turns out that our data have practical economic and civil uses," notes Fisher. "This is a good example of space science supporting modern society."

"I believe we're on the threshold of a new era in which space weather can be as influential in our daily lives as ordinary terrestrial weather." Fisher concludes. "We take this very seriously indeed."

One thing is for sure and has general consensus, a storm is coming.

see also The sun can take us to stone age

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by dailycosmicnews) from materials provided by Science@NASA. The original article was written by Dr. Tony Phillips.


  1. Bit out of date no? It has been revised down yet again and anyway the method of counting is deemed to give a false number.

    Some links to the original source would be a good idea. If you do a search for this it comes up as NASA and dated April 06, however the data is from March 2006.


    Do some research before posting NASA nonsense!!

  2. Dear Granpadavid, the date is correct and actual, and some data is colected from 2006 but still updated .If you paid attention only the tittle and some words has something to do with the original thats because it says addapted not in/ or from .
    Second its good to now that there are better agencys than NASA, yours maybe?