Don't flip out about the sun

2013-08-19T00:00:00Z 2013-08-19T21:26:18Z Don't flip out about the sunBy Tom Beal Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Worried about the sun flipping its magnetic poles?

Afraid to let your kids go outside during solar maximum?

Take a tip from Old Sol himself and chill. The sun is experiencing its least active solar maximum in more than a century.

According to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center:

“We are currently over four years into Cycle 24. The current predicted and observed size makes this the smallest sunspot cycle since Cycle 14,” which peaked in February of 1906.”

Solar astronomer Matt Penn accurately predicted this quiet cycle and now says sunspots and the solar flares that follow their appearance could disappear completely during the next cycle.

Penn and his research partner Bill Livingston, both of the National Solar Observatory, have kept a running record of the energy from the magnetic field of sunspots for 13 years.

They are weakening and could reach a historically low number in the next solar cycle, said Penn, equaling inactivity last seen from 1645 to 1715.

It was called the Maunder Minimum and it occurred while parts of northern Europe and North America were experiencing abnormally cold temperatures.

Scientists, including those at NASA, originally pooh-poohed Penn and Livingston’s conclusions, but a NASA report on the National Research Council’s findings earlier this year concedes that new research bolsters their predictions.

We talked to Penn about recent reports of the sun’s activity.

Q: We’re at or near solar maximum. should we be concerned?

A: No. Solar maximum really has no impact on the amount of light you can detect with your eyes and no impact on animals or plants. We go through solar maximum every 11 years. It’s a normal event. There are more sunspots now, but Solar Cycle 24 is the weakest in the past 100 years — weaker than the previous cycle by a factor of 2.

Q: Discovery Channel recently reported that a huge chunk of the sun’s surface had blasted off and is headed toward Earth. Is it time to duck?

A: No, the sun’s surface never gets blown off into space. It’s just too dense and heavy. Solar flares can take lighter parts of the sun and send them flying through the solar system.

Q: The sun is about to flip its magnetic field. What will that do to us?

A: Nothing. The magnetic fields flip every 11 years. Normally, during a sunspot cycle, people hear all about the great sunspots. Now we see very few and people are talking about magnetic fields. It’s a gradual process over a several-month period.

Q: Does space weather affect Earth’s weather enough to significantly heat or cool the planet?

A: That’s the multimillion-dollar question. We know individual storms and flares don’t affect it, but the gradual changes over several months or several years may.

Q: So we can stop worrying about the sun?

A: No. The (1859) Carrington flare (which disrupted telegraph transmissions and caused an aurora across North America) occurred during a weak solar sunspot cycle. We really don’t know how to predict when big flares will occur.

Contact reporter Tom Beal at tbeal@azstarnet.com or 573-4158.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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