Solar ‘Hibernation’ Puzzles Scientists

The Enigma of Sunspots

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by Mark Aragona

Just when you thought there was nothing new under the sun, it turns out you were just looking in the wrong direction.

In a phenomenon not seen since the 17th century, solar activity appears to be undergoing a “quiet” period, marked by a lack of sunspots, sluggish solar flares, and slow activity around the poles. Scientists are baffled as they were expecting the opposite, a solar maximum, to occur around 2012.

Frank Hill, associate director of the Solar Synoptic Network, calls the events “highly unusual and unexpected.” Nevertheless, three different studies have approached the same conclusion after observing the sun’s atmosphere, insides and surface. Hill states that “solar cycles cause space weather which affect modern technology and may contribute to climate change.”

The first observation was that sunspots are fading away from the star’s surface. Sunspots are areas of relatively cooler temperatures which scientists have used for centuries to indicate the sun’s magnetic activity.

Observers have also noted that solar flares have been sluggish and that jetstreams that normally rush from the poles to the equator have slowed down to a crawl. All of these indicate that the sun is entering a state of “hibernation” and delayed start of the 25th solar cycle.

Questions have arisen on how this will affect our climate. Some scientists are saying this may be a second Maunder Minimum, referring to a period between 1645-1715 where Europe entered a mini-Ice Age, a time when canals regularly froze and glaciers crept across the land. Other scientists are more skeptical. They state that, firstly, the relationship between the sun and climate change is poorly understood, and secondly, that our carbon output is far higher now than way back in the medieval era.

Technology is also subject to space weather. Solar flares and other activity from the sun can throw highly-charged particles at the Earth, interfering with satellite signals, GPS, power grids, and other electronic devices. It even causes a drag on orbiting satellites. With a relatively quieter sun, we can expect better performance on all counts.

There’s still a lot to look out for. Scientists are now watching for what our star may or may not do next, particularly with regards to its magnetic field. The next few years under the sun may get very interesting indeed.

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