One reason for the wild summer weather around the globecould be that the sun is experiencing it as well. July of2004 has seen some unusual solar weather. The sunspot countas of July 17 was 142. A few daysago, sunspot 649, larger than Jupiter emitted an X-3 classsolar flare and sent a coronal mass ejection toward earth.
Scientists are unsure about the precise dynamics of howsolar activity affects earth weather, but CMEs are believedto heat the atmosphere, and there is some evidence that theycan caused localized surface heating as well, and may evenbe implicated in wildfires.
The sun is now more active than it has been for hundreds ofyears. For example, last October, three giant sunspots appearedthat emitted powerful CMEs toward earth. In California,smoke from wildfires dimmed the sun enough for people tolook straight at it, revealing huge blotches on the sun?ssurface. One of them, “sunspot 486,” was the biggest in 13years. It has been speculated that the worldwide upsurge inwildfires that took place in October and November in the US,Siberia, Europe and Africa might have been due in part tosolar effects.
On November 4th, sunspot 486 unleashed an X28 flare?the mostpowerful ever recorded. NASA’s David Hathaway says, “In 1989a flareabout half that strong caused a widespread power blackout inQuebec.” Solar protons penetrated Earth’s upper atmosphere,exposing astronauts and some air travelers to radiationdoses equal to a medical chest X-ray. Radio communicationswere disrupted and auroras appeared in places where they’dnever been seen before. Since this happened at the point inthe 11-year solar cycle when activity usually declines,scientists are asking themselves if something has changed onthe sun.
“Nothing’s wrong,” says Hathaway. “These latestsunspotswere whoppers, but sunspot counts averaged over many weeksare still declining as predicted. We’re still on course fora solar minimum in 2006. There’s a curious tendency for thebiggest flares to occur after solar maximum?on the downslopetoward solar minimum. This has happened during two of thelast three solar cycles.”
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