Whitley's Journal

So the Sun's Going Nuts--Who Cares?

The sun is in the most unusual state that has ever been observed. At a time when it should be recording greatly diminished sunspot activity, the most active sunspot ever observed has just finished crossing its face. The largest solar flare ever recorded--by far--exploded out of this sunspot on November 4.

This extraordinary event wasn't headline news. In fact, it didn't even make the back pages of most papers and news websites, let alone the broadcast news. Unknowncountry, Earthfiles and the NASA and NOAA sites were the only places where it was really featured as a major news item.

The big media was probably making a big mistake. Here?s why. Since we have been observing the sun, it has followed a regular 11-year sunspot cycle. At the height of the cycle, its face is covered with sunspots and many flares send various types of radiation out into space. Occasionally, this radiation is powerful enough to cause some sort of damage on earth. Usually it takes the form of a brief radio blackout, or an FAA warning that people in high flying aircraft might be subjected to a slight increase in radiation exposure. In 1989, there was significant damage to a major Canadian power grid as a result of a coronal mass ejection reaching the earth?s surface.

Since then, power systems worldwide have been ?hardened? against the recurrence of such an event, and the recent spate of flares caused no damage.

So, why bother to report on this? Why send out bulletins about solar flares?

Because the solar system is at the beginning of a period of profound change, and it is vitally important that we understand it and prepare for it.

The most recent solar maximum should have begun to wane after the sun?s magnetic pole flipped, which it does at the end of each 11 year cycle. However, this time, something went wrong. The pole did not flip completely. Instead, it stopped midway in its transition. This means that the sun?s magnetic field is now weaker than it has been at any time in known history.

This is going to have all sorts of unforeseen consequences, but one consequence is already known and is happening right now: it is that interstellar dust is entering the solar system. Normally, the sun?s magnetic field keeps such dust at bay. But not now. Now, for the first time, possibly, in millions of years, this dust is present here.

Superficially, one would think that a miniscule amount of dust would make little difference, but there is substantial evidence that the presence of cosmic dust causes stars to act in unstable ways. If so, then we are likely to see the end of the 11 year solar cycle that has been an important contributor to our stable weather pattern for so long, and the beginning of a much more unpredictable situation.

In a worst-case scenario, we will see flares like the one that took place on November 4 pointed directly at earth. Had that flare erupted forty-eight hours earlier, it would have hit us head on. The big media certainly wouldn?t have missed that story, as even hardened power grids would have been knocked out by it. Planes would have had to be grounded. There would have been significant weather effects. Some radiation would have reached the surface, although not enough to pose any health risk. Auroras would have been visible at every latitude. Radio blackouts would have been general. Satellite damage would have been significant. There would have been a possibility that the astronauts aboard the International Space Station would have received an unhealthy radiation dose.

So it?s important to follow the sun, whether the big media knows it or not. That?s why Unknowncountry exists?to follow the kind of news that the conventional wisdom tells you to ignore. What?s more important, after all: knowing that elephants at the National Zoo in Washington recently trampled some pumpkins, which CNN recently thought was worth telling you, or understanding where the sun is going to take six billion human lives, which struck us as a big story?

I think we've got the best answer to that one.

NOTE: This Journal entry, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.

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