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Our Unstable Sun

Solar activity reaches its height every 11 years, when solar flare erupt solar flares erupt near sunspots daily. Coronal mass ejections, composed of billion-ton clouds of magnetized gas, fly away from the Sun and hit the surrounding planets. The Sun?s magnetic field, which is as large as the solar system itself, becomes unstable and reverses. This is known as a Solar Max. The most recent Solar Max reached its height in mid-2000. Sunspot counts were higher than they had been in 10 years, and solar activity was intense. One eruption on July 14, 2000 caused brilliant auroras as far south as Texas, along with electrical brown-outs. It temporarily disabled some satellites.

After that, sunspot counts slowly declined and the Sun was relatively quiet for months at a time. But now, at the beginning of 2002, the Solar Max is back. The Sun is again filled with spots, and eruptions are frequent. David Hathaway, a solar physicist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, says, ?The current solar cycle appears to be double-peaked,? and it looks as if the second peak has arrived.

Scientists track solar cycles by counting sunspots, which are cool, planet-sized areas on the Sun where intense magnetic loops poke through the star?s visible surface. Hathaway is an expert forecaster of sunspot numbers. ?Sunspot counts peaked in 2000 some months earlier than we expected,? he says. The dip towards the solar minimum seemed premature to him, and indeed it was. Before long, sunspot counts began to climb toward a second maximum that now appears to be only a little smaller than the first.

During solar maximum, magnetic fields above the Sun?s surface become tangled, particularly near sunspots. Twisted magnetic fields are stretched like rubber bands and can snap back and explode, causing solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

Solar radio emissions come from hot gas trapped in magnetic loops. ?The radio Sun is even brighter now than it was in 2000,? says Hathaway. By radio standards, this second peak is larger than the first.

The source of the Sun?s variability is the turbulent Sun itself. The outermost third of our star is boiling like hot water on a stove. Huge bubbles rise to the Sun?s surface where they turn over and ?pop,? releasing heat, which is generated by nuclear reactions in the Sun?s core, into space. Says Hathaway, ?We need more time to understand completely how the internal rhythms of our star affect the solar cycle.?

We could find no evidence of significant prior research suggesting that any other ?double-peaked? solar cycles have actually been observed. However, this is the first scientific acknowledgement that the sun has been acting in an unusual manner for the past year. If the present high level of solar activity continues, it will have major implications for planet Earth. Periods of solar flaring have been found to lead to weather changes on our planet, most notably cooling.

To learn more about this, read ?The 23rd Cycle? by Sten Odenwald, click here.

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