Blazing Into a New Solar Cycle

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There may be nothing new under the sun, but there’s something new on the sun: sunspots. Last fall, astronomers who ignored their mothers’ advice not to look at the blazing orb observed the spots–which are actually powerful magnetically induced storms–on its surface after a nine-month absence, Canadian Geographic reports (article not available online). The sun hadn’t been spotless that long for 50 years.

The newly increased activity means we’re entering a new 11-year solar cycle in which sunspots will become more and more common. What’s it mean? Maybe warmer weather.

“A spotless sun is slightly cooler than a spotty sun, because the roiling solar plasma around the sunspots generates more energy,” the magazine writes. “Researchers are attempting to establish a correlation between solar activity and the earth’s weather. From 1645 to 1715, the solar cycle stopped, and sunspots virtually disappeared. This interval coincided with the Little Ice Age, a period of severe winters in the Northern Hemisphere that hasn’t been experienced since.”

The spotty sun will almost certainly mean more spectacular northern lights, or aurora borealis, which increase along with solar activity. A light-chasing Alaska photographer who calls himself the Aurora Hunter writes, “We are in the trough, ‘Deep Solar Minimum,’ and will soon be heading upward into what is referred to as Solar Cycle 24.” In layman’s terms, he compares sunspots to “a giant revolving firehose emitting energy into space.”

But don’t rush outdoors at night just yet: The cycle isn’t expected to peak until 2011-2013.

To stay up to date on solar activity and aurora forecasts, visit the website of the Geophysical Institute in Fairbanks, Alaska, or Calspace’s Space Weatherpage.

Sources: Canadian Geographic, Aurora Hunter, Geophysical Institute, Space Weather

Image by Don J. McCrady at, courtesy of the photographer.

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