Big drop in solar activity could mean much cooler Earth

Researchers predict much cooler Sun could be in forecast for next 11 years

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Scientists say the Sun, which roils with flares and electromagnetic energy every 11 years or so could go into virtual hibernation after the current cycle of high activity, reducing temperatures on Earth.

As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, scientists from the National Solar Observatory (NSO) and the Air Force Research Laboratory independently found that the Sun's interior, visible surface, and corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

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 The groups said a "missing jet stream, fading spots, and slower activity near the poles say that our Sun is heading for a rest period even as it is acting up for the first time in years."

"This is highly unusual and unexpected," stated Dr. Frank Hill, associate director of the NSO's Solar Synoptic Network, in a statement.  "But the fact that three completely different views of the Sun point in the same direction is a powerful indicator that the sunspot cycle may be going into hibernation. We expected to see the start of the zonal flow for Cycle 25 by now, but we see no sign of it. This indicates that the start of Cycle 25 may be delayed to 2021 or 2022, or may not happen at all."

According to the researchers, Sun spot numbers and solar activity rise and fall about every 11 years, which is half of the Sun's 22-year magnetic interval since the Sun's magnetic poles reverse with each cycle. An immediate question is whether this slowdown foreshadows what scientists call a Maunder Minimum, a 70-year period with virtually no sunspots which last happened from 1645-1715.

"If we are right, this could be the last solar maximum we'll see for a few decades. That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth's climate."

"Geomagnetic effects basically amount to any magnetic changes on Earth due to the Sun, and they're measured by magnetometer readings on the surface of the Earth. Such effects are usually harmless, with the only obvious sign of their presence being the appearance of auroras near the poles. However, in extreme cases, they can cause power grid failures on Earth or induce dangerous currents in long pipelines, so it is valuable to know how the geomagnetic effects vary with the Sun." stated says space weather scientist Bruce Tsurutani at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in another paper written on the Sunspot topic.

Still, as noted in the MSNBC Cosmic Blog: "The linkage between solar activity and climate change is still a matter of scientific debate. And even if there is a link, it's not clear how solar-caused global cooling might interact with industrial global warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions. Climate scientists say the swings in solar activity that they've studied so far have had little or no impact on temperatures or other climate indicators - and they don't expect to see a big impact even if the sun goes quiet for a decade or longer."

The reduced solar activity discussion is interesting in the face of the current increase in solar activity. Just last week NASA's sun watching satellite, the Solar Dynamics Observatory got a shot of a medium-sized solar flare that caused some concern about its impact on satellites.

Then in February there was an X-class burst emanated from the Sun around Valentine's Day this year and caused quite a stir but ultimately caused no problems. X-class flares are the most powerful of all solar events that can trigger radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. That X class flare came on the heels of a few M-class and several C-class flares over the a few days in February.

NASA scientists classify solar flares according to their x-ray brightness in the wavelength range 1 to 8 Angstroms. There are 3 categories: X-class flares are major events that can trigger planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. M-class flares are medium-sized; they can cause brief radio blackouts that affect Earth's Polar Regions. Minor radiation storms sometimes follow M-class flares. Compared to X- and M-class, C-class flares are small with few noticeable consequences on Earth, NASA stated.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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