Solar Maximum & Minimum
2009 ~ 2017
(Solar Cycle 24)
Just as earth has cycles
which we call seasons, the sun's energy output also changes on
a roughly 11-year basis. We call these changes the solar cycle.
We are now at the ending point of solar maximum period number 24. During the last solar minimum, there were few
magnetic storms on the sun, sunspots were rare, and geomagnetic disturbances here on earth
were nearly nonexistent. Aurora watchers had to travel to the polar regions to see
the Northern Lights.
2016 and 2017 bring us decreasing sunspot numbers, lowered solar output, and the return to solar minimum:
"What does this mean? The solar cycle is like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between periods of
high and low sunspot number every 11 years. Today's [23 June 2016] blank sun is a sign that the pendulum is
swinging toward low sunspot numbers. In other words, Solar Minimum is coming.
"Forecasters expect the next Solar Minimum to arrive in 2019-2020. Between now and then, there
will be lots of spotless suns. At first, the blank stretches will be measured in days; later in weeks
and months. When the sunspot cycle reaches its nadir, a whole year could go by without sunspots.
"Solar Minimum is widely misunderstood. Many people think it brings a period of dull quiet. In fact,
space weather changes in interesting ways. For instance, as the extreme ultraviolet output of the sun decreases,
the upper atmosphere of Earth cools and collapses. This allows space junk to accumulate around our planet. Also,
the heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth; galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar
system and our atmosphere with relative ease. Meanwhile, geomagnetic storms and auroras will continue -- caused
mainly by solar wind streams instead of CMEs. Indeed, Solar Minimum is coming, but it won't be dull."
A neutron monitor at the South Pole is detecting an upswing in cosmic rays penetrating Earth's atmosphere.
Here are the data, courtesy of the University of Delaware's Bartol Research Institute:
This is a sign of changing times on the sun. The solar cycle is shifting from Solar Maximum to Solar Minimum.
As the sun's magnetic field weakens, cosmic rays are having an easier time penetrating the inner solar system.
Earth is in the cross-hairs of these high-energy particles. (Courtesy of Spaceweather.)
In late 2007, a new sunspot
appeared on the sun, signaling the end of our quiet period.
This sunspot had a reversed polarity magnetic field. According to NASA's solar
physicist David Hathaway: "New solar cycles always begin with a high-latitude, reversed polarity sunspot,"
explains Hathaway. "'Reversed polarity' " means a sunspot with opposite magnetic polarity
compared to sunspots from the previous solar cycle. 'High-latitude' refers to the sun's grid of latitude
and longitude. Old cycle spots congregate near the sun's equator. New cycle spots appear higher, around
25 or 30 degrees latitude." Full article may be found here. As we approach the midway point of Solar
Cycle 24, the sun is preparing to reverse its magnetic field. Scroll down for an article explaining this event.
As far back as 2006, solar
scientists began predicting that our next solar maximum would
be one of the strongest yet. "This week researchers announced that a storm is coming--the
most intense solar maximum in fifty years. The prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati
of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). 'The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50%
stronger than the previous one,' she says. If correct, the years ahead could produce a burst of solar activity
second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958." (From Science @ NASA.) Our last solar
minimum, however, was longer and deeper than usual. Could this mean a quieter solar max period?
So far, solar activity seems to be much lower than expected. Recent projections by
some NASA scientists say that maximum solar activity will peak in 2013. Others speculate that we
may be in for a double peak solar maximum.
So what can happen during a
strong solar maximum? Sunspots increase and harbor more energy.
At times, this energy is released in the form of coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A CME
consists of plasma from the sun itself -- electrons and protons -- with an accompanying
magnetic field. When these charged particles strike the earth's magnetosphere, they travel
down the magnetic field lines to the poles, colliding with atoms in our atmosphere along the way. These
collisions can create a display of the aurora borealis. The energized ejected material can also strike satellites,
causing drag and damage to electronic circuitry. GPS units and telecommunications may be disrupted.
In a severe geomagnetic storm, astronauts and high-altitude jet passengers can receive
higher than normal doses of radiation. Power grids on earth may fail as a result of the massive
influx of energy. The aurora borealis can sometimes be seen as far south as Mexico.
For an excellent article on the possible effects of a severe geomagnetic storm, see
this page on Wikipedia.
BERKELEY (18 March 2014)
Earth dodged a huge magnetic bullet from the sun on July 23, 2012. A Carrington-class flare erupted on the far side of the sun.
According to researchers from UC Berkeley and China, a rapid succession of coronal mass ejections the most intense eruptions
on the sun sent a pulse of magnetized plasma barreling into space and through Earths orbit. Had the eruption come nine days earlier,
when the ignition spot on the solar surface was aimed at Earth, it would have hit the planet, potentially wreaking havoc with the electrical
grid, disabling satellites and GPS, and disrupting our increasingly electronic lives.
Read more here.
A modern Carrington
event would cause significant damage to our high-tech society.
From the NASA article: "Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple
auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at
near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii.
"Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set
the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced
electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted.
"What Carrington saw was
a white-light solar flare—a magnetic explosion on the sun," explains David
solar physics team lead at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama."
@ @ @
"This week – October 26, 2015 – scientists in Sweden published a study in the journal Nature Communications suggesting
that solar storms – streams of charged particles from the sun – could be much more powerful than previously
assumed. Researchers at Lund University say they’ve now confirmed that Earth was hit by two extreme solar
storms more than 1,000 years ago. These storms were at least 10 times larger than those observed in recent decades.
The evidence for these storms is trapped in ice in Greenland and Antarctica." Article here.
Could extreme space weather have led to the development of life on our planet? According to a recent study
published in the journal Nature Geoscience, it is possible:
"If a massive solar storm struck the Earth today, it could wipe out our technology and hurl us back to the dark ages.
Lucky for us, events like this are quite rare. But four billion years ago, extreme space weather was probably the norm.
And rather than bringing the apocalypse, it might have kickstarted life." Full story may be found here.
@ @ @
As our climate changes and warms from the norm, there has been a lot of speculation
on whether the Sun
and its cycles play a role in Earthly climate matters. Some climate change deniers claim that this solar maximum's low activity
will lead to a cooling planet, thus offsetting man-made atmospheric carbon input. Is this plausible? The science says no:
"As supplier of almost all the energy in Earth's climate, the sun has a strong influence on climate. A comparison of sun and climate over the past 1150 years
found temperatures closely match solar activity (Usoskin 2005). However, after 1975, temperatures rose while solar activity showed little to no
long-term trend. This led the study to conclude, "...during these last 30 years the solar total irradiance, solar UV irradiance and cosmic ray
flux has not shown any significant secular trend, so that at least this most recent warming episode must have another source."
In fact, a number of independent measurements of solar activity indicate the sun has shown a slight cooling trend since 1960, over the same period
that global temperatures have been warming. Over the last 35 years of global warming, sun and climate have been moving in opposite directions. An
analysis of solar trends concluded that the sun has actually contributed a slight cooling influence in recent decades (Lockwood 2008)."
In recent years, the belief
that the sun may flare and cause an electromagnetic
pulse (EMP) on earth has been popularized in the media. Is this possible? No. According to NASA's
C. Alex Young, a solar astrophysicist with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, "[Killer flares] would not happen.
The sun cannot produce flares (or CMEs) with enough energy to do this. It is a physical impossibility.
It would take the entire energy of the sun, like a supernova. The sun will not become a supernova.
Speaking of odd beliefs, HAARP
is not a sinister government plot.
Instead, it is a scientific program funded by U.S. taxpayers "to analyze the ionosphere and investigate the potential
for developing ionospheric enhancement technology for radio communications and surveillance."
Update: "August 5, 2013:
Something big is about to happen on the sun. According to measurements from
NASA-supported observatories, the sun's vast magnetic field is about to flip.
"It looks like we're no
more than 3 to 4 months away from a complete field reversal," says solar
Todd Hoeksema of Stanford University. "This change will have ripple effects throughout the solar system."
"The sun's magnetic field changes polarity approximately every 11 years. It happens at the peak of each
solar cycle as the sun's inner magnetic dynamo re-organizes itself. The coming reversal will mark the
midpoint of Solar Cycle 24. Half of 'Solar Max' will be behind us, with half yet to come. "
Source: Science At NASA
Another interesting article
about the Sun's magnetic field reversal may be
found at National Geographic.
For incoming storm warnings or to find out if you can see the aurora in your area, see:
SOLAR HAM has great
information, graphs, video and live feed that is
every two minutes.
My own aurora borealis site also lists sources for space weather updates and solar storm warning notifications.
Tools are included to let you calculate whether the aurora is currently visible in your location. I have also
included links to aurora web cams on this page. Please note that the aurora is not visible in arctic
skies from May through late August due to the length of daylight hours.
Current space weather conditions:
You can also use it to correlate
important Earth history events like stock market crashes, the Mets winning,
and other anomalies with the 11-year solar cycle. Dates go back to the 1700s.
For entertainment purposes only!
Perhaps during this solar
maximum period, we will see glories such as this:
Aurora panorama photo, above,
courtesy of and copyrighted by LeRoy Zimmerman
Farewell, my dear friend. May your journey to Valhalla be filled with the glory of the Gods.
Photo above was taken by author March 2010, Chena Hot Springs Alaska
Photo below courtesy of Andy Keen, and The Aurora Hunters© on Facebook.
Would you like to see and
photograph the aurora live? Please visit:
Andy Keen's site, The Aurora Hunters©
If you are interested in purchasing fine art prints of the aurora as seen in Norway, aurora photographer Frank Olsen's
outstanding work may be found in his art gallery.
If you found the information on this page useful, please consider
a small donation to defray the costs of site maintenance and hosting. Thank you. See PayPal link, above.
To learn more about the aurora, to
find out whether it is visible in your location, or
to see it live via web camera, please visit our other site, The Aurora Borealis Page.
Our Alaskan aurora photos 2010
A few more of our 2012 aurora photos may be seen here.
Alaska -- Our photos and journeys in the Great Land
(Above) ISS032-E-007896 (15
July 2012) --- The Expedition 32 crew onboard the International Space Station,
flying at an altitude of
approximately 240 miles, recorded a series of images of Aurora Australis, also known as the Southern Lights, on July 15 (2012).
NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, flight engineer, recorded the series of images from the Tranquility node.
The Canadarm2 robot arm is in the foreground.
Sun-spotless days since solar maximum began, 2009:
2017 total: 10 days (67%)
2016 total: 32 days (9%)
2015 total: 0 days (0%)
2014 total: 1 day (<1%)
2013 total: 0 days (0%)
2012 total: 0 days (0%)
2011 total: 2 days (<1%)
2010 total: 51 days (14%)
2009 total: 260 days (71%)
As we can see, above, solar maximum is now waning as we begin to approach solar minimum (~2019-2020).
This page updated 17 January
Following the Sun since 2000. Copyright 2008-2017.
Disclaimer: The information contained on this page has been verified by the author.
I dedicate this page to my dad and mom, who gifted to me the love of life, space, science, and
most of all - curiosity and the never-ending thirst to satisfy it. Thanks. I love you.
You are free to quote or link to this site. However, it is
my preference that it not be used to attempt to prove political or spiritual points. Scientific knowledge
belongs to us all and has no national or political borders. Thank you.
Author: Sue Evans