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Prepare for an up-tick of solar activity

Published November 16. 2013 09:28AM

An article in this week's news stated the sun appears to be ready to flip its magnetic poles once again. According to scientists, this pole shift occurs every 11 years and causes the magnetic poles of the sun to fade out and return totally opposite of their current configuration. The result of this pole shift to Earth is an up-tick of solar activity including flares and ejections. Scientists who have studied the sun and how it cycles through its activity name this period as the "solar maximum."

It is during this solar maximum part of the cycle the poles on the sun reverse positions. The process begins by the formation of a solar spot that cools the equator. The term cool is relative to the sun's surface as even this area is hot. This has an effect of pushing the sun's magnetic field toward one of its poles. As the magnetic field moves, the sun's magnetic field declines to zero and then the field returns with the opposite polarity meaning the sun's positive pole is negative and the sun's negative pole is now positive. This is the midpoint of the solar cycle and marks the beginning of the second half.

While this is occurring on the sun, its effects can be seen throughout the solar system. The sun's magnetic field is caused by its molten metallic core slowly churning which generates an electric current which in turn creates the magnetic field. The sun's massive field however encompasses the entire solar system. Scientists refer to something called a heliospheric current sheet. Imagine a sheet of thin paper stretching out from the center of a softball. Our planets move above and below this sheet as they orbit around the sun and that creates variations in their own magnetic fields and space weather. When the poles switch it ripples this sheet. Some scientists believe this rippling makes the sheet more protective to the solar system by blocking harmful cosmic rays from hitting the planets in the solar system.

The sun's activity as reported in the news creates several issues for us and as we have become more technologically dependent, we have also exposed ourselves to higher risks of societal disruption by solar events. The massive energy shot from the sun in a coronal mass ejection (CME) which is a massive jet of plasma shot from the sun's surface into space is like sending a missile of electromagnetic energy into space. Fortunately we have missed getting a direct hit from one of these major flares although we have experienced more minor ones over the years. The most visible result of the CME is our aurora borealis. That multi-colored display of lights that is seen in the northern hemisphere and its counterpart in the Southern hemisphere, the aurora australis, is really the visible side effect from the solar flares glancing off and energizing the Earth's magnetic field. The lights can be seen many times during the year when you are in the right position. Sometimes we can see them here, but night light pollution has reduced their beauty and visibility. My parents recalled seeing them once or twice in the winter time, but to date I have yet to experience this natural phenomena or nature's magic light show. This same solar activity creates massive storms on Jupiter as well as auroras on other planets too.

The aurora is not the only effect on the planet Earth. In fact, it is probably the only benign effect solar activity could have on the Earth. Because of our dependency on technology all of which for the most part inherently depends on electricity and magnetism, solar flares and CMEs could be dangerous to our planet. The most exposed inhabitants of the Earth are the astronauts in the space station or in orbit around the planet. A direct hit from a major CME contains massive amounts of radiation enough to be lethally dangerous to astronauts who are beyond the protection of Earth's magnetic field.

There was a direct hit from a CME on our planet in 1859 and there was a troublesome effect on our planet from this small flare, however the northern lights were the most spectacular that anyone had seen to that point. There is documentation that the lights were so bright they woke up those involved in the Gold Rush who were camped in tents. The problem wasn't the light show though, it was the effect it had on the telegraph. The intense electromagnetic field overwhelmed the telegraph system by melting the wires, shocking the operators and short circuiting the systems. Other than the telegraph, the rest of the population felt little effect from this event.

Today is a different story. If we were hit by a strong enough solar flare, the earth could potentially face technological devastation. Micro events in the past have knocked out satellite and GPS systems temporarily. A direct hit by a flare though in the worst circumstances could totally destroy entire computer systems, navigation systems and networks. In an instant, that would mean we could potentially return to a period before technologic dependence even if temporary, the damage could take months or years to repair. This is not a matter of if this will happen; it is only a matter of when.This could result in planes' navigation systems being disabled in midflight which could be disastrous.

It amazes me how the Earth's magnetic field protects us from the vast majority of flares and disruptions that could otherwise adversely affect us. It is almost magical how everything evolved and works together to produce a magnetic field that is strong enough to protect us and yet weak enough to allow us to develop and work with technology the way we do. It is truly a natural miracle.

Til next time …

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