News Stories

It's Not the Sunspots

It's the solar WIND - You've heard the complaint that "it's not the heat, it's the humidity." Well, the same thing can be said about the sun: New research finds that the number of sunspots provides an incomplete measure of the sun's impact on global warming over its 11-year solar cycle. Earth was bombarded last year with high levels of solar energy at a time when the Sun was in an unusually quiet phase and sunspots had virtually disappeared. But there was LOTS of solar wind.

Researcher Sarah Gibson says, "The sun continues to surprise us. The solar wind can hit Earth like a fire hose even when there are virtually no sunspots."

Scientists for centuries have used sunspots, which are areas of concentrated magnetic fields that appear as dark patches on the solar surface, to determine the approximately 11-year solar cycle. At solar maximum, the number of sunspots peaks. During this time, intense solar flares occur daily and geomagnetic storms frequently buffet the earth, knocking out satellites and disrupting communications networks.

Gibson and her colleagues focused instead on another process by which the Sun discharges energy, by analyzing high-speed streams within the solar wind that carry turbulent magnetic fields out into the solar system. When those streams blow by Earth, they intensify the energy of the planet's outer radiation belt. This can create serious hazards for weather, navigation, and communications satellites that travel at high altitudes within the outer radiation belts, while also threatening astronauts in the International Space Station. Auroral storms light up the night sky repeatedly at high latitudes as the streams move past.

But it's over for now: New observations show that the winds have finally slowed, almost two years after sunspots reached the levels of last cycle's minimum.

In the fall, there's a lovely soft breeze in the desert at night (and we hope to spot some lovely UFOs as well). We're going to be doing some magic and showing the pilot to Anne and Whitley's reality TV series, so we expect to have a great time. We hope to see YOU there! And subscribers have a coupon that gives them $25 off!

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