Nowadays it seems we’re trained to be afraid. Reports that the sun’s magnetic field is flipping have caused not a few ripples of excitement. Some popular media report responsibly. Others play on fears, claiming that the magnetic field’s reversal means we’re in for some stormy weather.
The good news? We’re not doomed.
At just shy of 100 million miles away, our solar dance partner might seem too distant for relatively small events within it to have much impact on the earth. But the sun constantly blows a blistering ionized “plasma” gas toward our planet, its temperatures approaching 200,000°F. Of course, this solar wind’s temperature decreases as it travels farther from the sun, and it is so light that, for the most part, it is merely interesting. But sometimes the wind blows hot, dense, and fast enough to cause problems on the earth—along with glorious auroral light shows.
Solar Magnetic Wind and Sunspots
Around 28 B.C. Chinese astronomers recorded spots on the sun. The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras might have seen a spot in 467 B.C. From around the sixteenth century, physicists began systematically collecting daily records of sunspot numbers. We now have about 500 years of continuous records of these dark pimples on the face of the sun.
In the nineteenth century physicists recognized a connection between sunspots and our planet that they’d not realized before: magnetic activity observed by compasses sometimes spiked dramatically when sunspots were numerous.
It was still mainly an academic interest until the dawn of the space age, when it became clear that sunspots are associated with many disturbances on earth. We discovered that the sun has an atmosphere, and that the earth resides within it! This suggests that whatever happens on the surface of the sun affects us directly. Thus was born the area of research known as space weather—my specialty as a physicist.
Space weather researchers study the direct effects of solar activity on our technologies. Strong, but for the most part not destructive, effects have been observed in global telecommunications, electric power grids, navigation, human spaceflight, and satellite reliability.
Solar Cycles, Space Weather, and Earth Climate
The flip generates interest because of that connection with space weather near its occurrence. Bad space weather can happen any time, but it is more common during solar maximum. Massive space storms make compass needles race more erratically than ever, and auroras blaze bright and ubiquitous. No big deal.
But today we often depend on continuous access to technologies sensitive to electromagnetic fluctuations. Think of a space storm, which affects everything in the sun’s atmosphere—including the earth—as an electrical thunderstorm on a solar-system scale. Alarming reports about impending disasters due to the regular tick-tock of the solar magnetic field are unjustified. But unplugging, or electronically hardening, sensitive equipment, as we do during thunderstorms, may be prudent.
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