A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Here Comes the Sun

Almost ten years ago, when I spent my first October in the UK, the sun was shining and the weather was relatively still warm. I remember walking around Stonehenge with just a jumper (sweater) on. Though the wind was fiercely whipping across the Salisbury Plain, it was still comfortable.

Fast forward to this autumn...the cold started in August and we have had frost already. My geraniums on the front  porch are knitting mittens for themselves.The sun has peeked out only occasionally in the last few weeks. A lot of scientists tell us that the change in the weather may be due to the activity on the sun. Our sun goes through solar maximum and solar minimum stages in (roughly) 11 year cycles as it was first discovered by German scientist, Heinrich Schwabe in the mid-1800's. During the solar maximum (at the time that sunspot activity is at its highest), our temperatures are higher. During a solar minimum (less to no sunspot activity) our temperatures are (on average) lower. We have been in the deepest solar minimum since the beginning of the last century and this is what is partially responsible for the drop in temperatures on the planet. From 1645 to 1715, decreased sunspot activity led to plunging Western Europe into a deep freeze called the "mini Ice Age". During those winters, you could go ice skating on the Thames River in London. 

What is concerning NASA scientists at the moment is the possibility of increased solar storms which are predicted to coincide with the solar maximum peak in 2013. In 2010, we are seeing the increase.In February of 2010, giant sunspot 1045 emerged, producing three M-class and almost a dozen C-class solar flares. During August and September (2010), the Sun has experienced volatile eruptions across its surface simultaneously. This was evident in the increased auroral activity in North America (for example.) Powerful solar flares shoot protons and electrons into space at the speed of light producing X-rays that disrupt the grid. Both the surge of atomic particles and the radiation can cause devastation. The greatest threat is the possibility of CME's (Coronal Mass Ejections). These are magnetically-charged, billion-ton plasma ejections that spew out into space at 1 million mph and arrive on the earth in only a few short days. Because these are so concentrated, they are the ones that are particularly dangerous.

Michael Faraday, English physicist
We have never experienced this sort of increased activity during a time when we have been so technologically dependent. In the 1800's a huge solar flare charged the telegraph line so much that some of the telegraph workers didn't have to use electricity at all. In some other offices, the lines were so charged that the workers were electrocuted. Others just "blew". How does this happen? To explain it as simply as possible (it's a bit more complex-so just the basics here), it works on the Faraday principle of magnetic induction. Michael Faraday, the English physicist in 1821, ran a magnet along a loop of wire. When he did this, the wire then exhibited an electrical current. Moving the magnet over the wire produced a corresponding electrical field. He harnessed this technology to create the first electric generator. The same thing happens with solar activity when it affects the earth. The magnetic storms that hit the earth interact with the "wires" on the earth and produce electrical currents that can zap out electrical and now digital systems that are dependent on electricity to function. The ramifications would be far-reaching.

This is why scientists at NASA are concerned. Any sort of solar storm of large magnitude would zap our power grid and cripple our technology. All our satellite systems would be affected. We are so dependent on our cell phones, our computers, the ATM (cash) machine, internet banking/shopping/socializing and our televisions and the petrol pumps which work on electrical currents as well.  If any solar ejection of any great strength were to hit the earth, we would definitely be left reeling. We take all of this technology for granted as they have been so seamlessly integrated into our daily lives.

We are currently in Solar Cycle 24. My own theory is that while this cycle will not have the largest number of sunspots (as the last few cycles did) the spots will be larger, more active and more powerful. This will mean that we will continue to have lower temperatures, but stronger storms on the sun that will produce larger range flares. 

So, it was with great interest that I saw these photos today. The sun is apparently forming a huge filament ring on its surface, it is very unusual:

Here is another majestic view:

It looks almost like a huge current is going around in a circle.  What does this mean? Is this a harbinger of things to come?  Stay tuned.

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