Unlike many fleeting celestial events, comets, meteor showers, and the northern lights, the Sun appears stationary. It always shines with exactly the same intensity, and the only changes have to do with the fact that its path across the sky changes throughout the year, thus changing the time at which the Sun warms the Earth’s surface during the day.
However, the reality is much more complex than that. The surface of the Sun is not as calm and unchanging as we think. When we look at the Sun closely, sooner or later we will see flares, coronal mass ejections and darker and cooler areas, so-called sunspots, with some regularity.
If we spent more time observing the surface of the Sun, we would see a pattern. In some years, the surface of the Sun is very calm and there are no sunspots on its surface. After a period of calm, the first spots appear and their number slowly increases, reaching a certain maximum, then begins to slowly decrease to return to a state of equilibrium. This cycle of solar activity lasts eleven years.
Now, in 2023, we are slowly approaching the next maximum solar activity, which is expected to be in July 2025. But the problem is that solar activity is increasing much faster than expected, which in turn could mean that we will reach the point of maximum activity at a later date. Much earlier.
It is not that solar activity may be of interest only to astronomers and people who deal with space. Too much solar activity can affect any of us. High-energy events on the Sun, such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections, can easily damage satellites in Earth’s orbit and may even disrupt power grids on the Earth’s surface, in extreme cases leading to widespread power outages. Modern civilization depends.
In trying to understand the Sun, scientists have for many years created models that attempt to predict solar activity and related space weather (a set of phenomena caused by the Sun that affect conditions in interplanetary space in the Solar System). However, these models are often wrong. The previous solar cycle lasted from December 2008 to December 2019, exactly 11 years. The maximum of this cycle occurred in mid-April 2014. It therefore began in December 2019 and was supposed to reach its maximum in July 2025. Moreover, this maximum was supposed to be relatively weak.
But scientists from the American NCAR Institute for Research Related to the Earth’s Atmosphere recently published Slightly different expectations. According to the researchers, the maximum period will appear this time earlier, in mid-2024, and what’s more, it will be characterized by twice the number of sunspots as originally expected. Current observations of the Sun indicate that these predictions will be accurate.
Scientists point out that much depends on determining the true date of the end of the solar cycle. Some researchers claim that the cycle ends at the moment when solar activity is at its lowest, while others point to the end – the moment when the last sunspot of the previous cycle disappears from the surface of the Sun. While the last cycle ended in December 2019, the last spot only disappeared in December 2021. This is crucial because the intensity of the next solar cycle is predicted based on the length of the previous cycle.
If, according to new predictions, there are more sunspots at maximum activity, flares or coronal mass ejections will occur more often on the surface of the Sun. However, if there are more of them, the risk increases that one of them will be pointed directly at Earth.
As inhabitants of the Earth, we can say that we are in a relatively comfortable position. The Earth is far enough from the Sun and, in addition, has its own magnetic field, which in most cases protects us from matter and radiation emanating from the surface and atmosphere of the Sun.
However, this does not change the fact that in the event of a strong magnetic storm, voltage surges may occur in long transmission lines in power networks. A good example of this is the grid failure that occurred in 1989 in Quebec, Canada.
A strong magnetic storm can heat the upper layers of the atmosphere, automatically thickening the atmosphere and increasing the resistance of the atmosphere to satellites in low Earth orbit. In such a situation, operators must monitor the rate of deceleration of the satellite and decrease in altitude in order to plan possible orbit raising maneuvers in a timely manner.
The Sun therefore draws our attention to one interesting aspect of reality. The modern world relies more and more on electrical infrastructure. This means that events on the Sun, which 150 years ago would have been unnoticed by most residents on Earth, are now capable of completely disrupting the functioning of millions of people. For this reason, with all the technological development, we should not forget to design power grids so that they are not vulnerable to voltage surges, create new shields for satellites exposed to space weather, and, finally, constantly improve scientific models of activity on the Earth’s surface. Solar surface.
Echo Richards embodies a personality that is a delightful contradiction: a humble musicaholic who never brags about her expansive knowledge of both classic and contemporary tunes. Infuriatingly modest, one would never know from a mere conversation how deeply entrenched she is in the world of music. This passion seamlessly translates into her problem-solving skills, with Echo often drawing inspiration from melodies and rhythms. A voracious reader, she dives deep into literature, using stories to influence her own hardcore writing. Her spirited advocacy for alcohol isn’t about mere indulgence, but about celebrating life’s poignant moments.