The Sun is a Mass of Cyclically Furious Gas
June 15, 2010 12:46 PM   Subscribe

"The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity." Dr. Richard Fisher and other sun-gazing scientists recently discussed the upcoming peak in the 11-year sunspot cycle. Due to the ever-increasing humans' reliance on electrical systems, the storm could leave a multi-billion pound damage bill and "potentially devastating" problems for governments. Constant improvements in satellite designs have assisted in bracing for a solar superstorm, an effort that comes in part by studying the impacts records of activity from past peaks in solar storms. System limits are set based on significant solar storm-triggered events in the past, though the largest magnetic storm on record was before the modern understanding of solar events. The solar storm of 1859, also known as The Carrington Event, when "telegraphs ran on electric air," was experienced around the world.

Last year on the blue, predictions for imminent solar storms (an "archived" view of the New Scientist article) was followed two months later by reports that there had been a remarkable lack of activity - the deepest minimum since 1913. That trough was potentially coming to an end in May 2009, with small sun spots showing up with increased frequency. Dean Pesnell of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center made the comment: "Go ahead and mark your calendar for May 2013, but use a pencil."

News hype of solar storms being the newest threat to all human life on earth to NASA's creation of a new way for the Earth to be destroyed are a great deal of hot air. There are three key NASA systems that are already tracking solar activity: Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (also known as STEREO / wiki / prev), Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO / wiki / prev), and Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE / wiki), and with adequate warning, most susceptible systems can be readied for impacts. Individuals don't need to make any special preparation for a solar storm. The standard emergency kit of water and food and first aid supplies will work just fine.
posted by filthy light thief (52 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
>the storm could leave a multi-billion pound damage bill

Marty, this has nothing to do with weight!
posted by The White Hat at 12:58 PM on June 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is a good post, and thorough.

The storm could leave a multi-billion pound damage bill and "potentially devastating" problems for governments.

Man, that is one heavy bill. *ducks*
posted by joe lisboa at 12:59 PM on June 15, 2010


*smacks The White Hat*
posted by joe lisboa at 1:00 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just getting started on all the links, but this is the kind of excellent post that takes all the fun out of listening to Coast to Coast.
posted by charred husk at 1:00 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Obligatory alarmism:

Individuals don't need to make any special preparation for a solar storm
posted by CynicalKnight at 1:02 PM on June 15, 2010


NASA has come up with a new way for the Earth to be destroyed

MOTHERFUCKIN TAX DOLLARS AT WORK, BOO YEAH
posted by Greg Nog at 1:03 PM on June 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


Just in time for 2012.
posted by monospace at 1:05 PM on June 15, 2010


The impending "catastrophic" "super storm" sounds to me like a lot of apocalyptic fearmongering of the type we're all used to. But I have to say, my curiosity was piqued by the description of the Maunder Minimum in the third link. I'd never heard of that before. It seems to have correlated to the "Little Ice Age" of that time in a way that suggests the sun might have more direct control over temperatures than we (or at least I) had realized. Could this new ramping-up of solar activity similarly correlate to the increased temperatures measured lately? And, with no snark intended at all, what could that mean for our understanding of global warming?

Probably nothing, as I'm sure the climate change researchers have factored sunspot patterns into their figures. But this is the first time I've heard or considered the matter, and it does make me wonder.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:06 PM on June 15, 2010


Solar storm of 1959
Should be 1859.
posted by beagle at 1:06 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I was wondering about how to cite that Telegraph article. Leave it in pounds and note (or dollars), edit it to dollars and hope no one notices, or leave it as-is - I stuck with the lazy way out.

Obligatory alarmism

Obligatory Yahoo Aswers link:
I watched the new film Knowing the other night, and a solar flare caused the mass extinction of the human race... and literally burned the planet. Could this actually happen? Like in the film (turning cities like New York into dust)

Its scary, I researched solar flares and apparently their will be one in 2012, just when people predict the world is going to end...

I need answers people!!!

posted by filthy light thief at 1:11 PM on June 15, 2010


Maybe Mrs. B will finally get a chance to see some Aurora.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:13 PM on June 15, 2010


Just in time for 2012.

Aha, but it's not, that's the funny thing! 2013 is the supposed peak of activity. And thus the "oneyearlate" tag makes sense.


Solar storm of 1959
Should be 1859.


Indeed. Damn.

posted by filthy light thief at 1:13 PM on June 15, 2010


It's actually a miasma of cyclically furious plasma.
posted by mkb at 1:15 PM on June 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


Maybe this. . . .
posted by Danf at 1:15 PM on June 15, 2010


It's actually a miasma of cyclically furious plasma.

When searching for miasma sun, the 3rd link is this informative FPP. Go MetaFilter!
posted by filthy light thief at 1:18 PM on June 15, 2010


This week's New Sci has an article on this topic.
posted by Electric Dragon at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas
The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:20 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Dealing with this (retrofitting systems etc) would be a wonderful way to stimulate the global economy and create millions of new jobs.

Somehow I get the feeling that industry is going to instead err on the side of "too expensive, let's cross our fingers and hope for the best instead"
posted by Senor Cardgage at 1:21 PM on June 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Aurora Borealis? At this time of year? At this time of day? In this part of the country? Localized entirely within your kitchen?

Yes!

May I... see it?

No.
posted by codacorolla at 1:21 PM on June 15, 2010 [9 favorites]


This week's New Sci has an article on this topic.

That's a decent article, too.
posted by zarq at 1:30 PM on June 15, 2010


More to the content of the FPP, the NPR article walks step by step through their "table top model". Does anyone know what form this would take, or what it would look like to someone observing it?
posted by codacorolla at 1:37 PM on June 15, 2010


NASA should really do something about Nicolas Cage.
posted by Muddler at 1:39 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


When the star[s] are right.
posted by atrazine at 1:41 PM on June 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


The drama of Richard Carrington reaction to John Adams appointment as the non-observing Director of the Cambridge Observatory is tabloid worth.
posted by Mitheral at 1:57 PM on June 15, 2010


Experts out there please correct me if I'm wrong, but all of the hand-wringing about something being "wrong" with the sun strikes me as premature. This is a question of sample size. We have data that go back a few hundred years at best, for something that is >4.5 billion years old.

Grade-school science students know that when you have only a few data points, you can be easily misled. This ebb in activity may be significant, or it may be an indistinguishable blip on a much longer pattern.

But you never read that. Either the scientists don't say it enough, or the science journalists fail to write it down, or the editors cut it because it's too bland.
posted by dust of the stars at 2:04 PM on June 15, 2010


The resulting aurora will be amazing to watch.

Unfortunately, 95% of Americans won't be able to see it because we love our damned street lights.

I miss night time.
posted by caution live frogs at 2:07 PM on June 15, 2010


*buys old vacuum tube radio; realizes most radio stations these days have solid state transmitters*
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:09 PM on June 15, 2010


The resulting aurora will be amazing to watch.

Unfortunately, 95% of Americans won't be able to see it because we love our damned street lights.

I miss night time.


yeah, but the power outages might help that ...
posted by lester's sock puppet at 2:22 PM on June 15, 2010


"Unfortunately, 95% of Americans won't be able to see it because we love our damned street lights.
"I miss night time."


Maybe this will be a self correcting problem. A big enough flare will probably knock out electrical distribution systems just in time for the light show.
posted by Mitheral at 2:24 PM on June 15, 2010


To filthy light thief who needs answers, it is true that if a large solar flare happened to be aimed directly at the Earth it could do stupendous damage. But before you panic, bear in mind that the sun in 93 million miles away, and it is very unlikely that any large solar flare would happen to be aimed exactly at the Earth. Imagine aiming your rifle at a target 93 million miles away. It's not easy to hit such a target. And I wouldn't worry about that Mayan calendar business. If the Mayans were unable to predict the conquistadores, I don't think they could predict the solar flares either. Civilizations with mysterious mystical powers of precognition are not taken over by a small number of knights in armor armed with swords and blunderbusses.
posted by grizzled at 2:27 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thank god the world today is not dependent on a distributed network of power and communication grids linked between hubs of solid state electronics. No come-uppance is possible!
posted by Babblesort at 2:27 PM on June 15, 2010


But before you panic (...) Imagine aiming your rifle at a target 93 million miles away. It's not easy to hit such a target.

To be fair, the Sun fires the rifle lots and lots of times. It only takes one good hit for it to be a big deal. In short, PANIC!!!!

don't, actually. unless you are someone in charge of funding solar/stellar research, in which case please to be sending me money to predict the imminent solar-flare calamity.
posted by chalkbored at 2:40 PM on June 15, 2010


If the Mayans were unable to predict the conquistadores, I don't think they could predict the solar flares either.

Considering that their civilization had collapsed hundreds of years before the Spanish showed up, I think they had worse problems in future prediction than this, even.

/pedant
posted by norm at 2:41 PM on June 15, 2010 [3 favorites]


> I'm sure the climate change researchers have factored sunspot patterns into their figures.

Yep:
Since the start of the industrial era (about 1750), the overall effect of human activities on climate has been a warming influence. The human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.

More here.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:45 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


RUN HIDE OH GOD WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE.

Wasn't there another batch of Carrington Event alarmism a few years ago? This seems like one of the lurid scenarios that gets new life every ten years or so.

Next on Fear-Based Media: Terror! Starring "the possibility that the Earth's magnetic poles will flip"! Stay tuned!
posted by ErikaB at 3:10 PM on June 15, 2010


caution live frogs, part of the reason I moved to my current home was the darkness. A couple neighbors have big lights, but they usually turn them off by midnight or before. It's treat to see the stars. If we lose power, it gets noisy because everyone but me has a generator, though my next door neighbors are older, and usually don't bother to set it up; they get less freaked out by the lack of electricity.

There have been outages due to solar flares pretty recently; about 8 -9 years ago, we lost internet connectivity due to solar flares. But this is probably over-hyped. Solar weather prediction isn't that good. Sounds like researchers want to make sure their budgets get restored. I do hope we get some good auroras.
posted by theora55 at 3:21 PM on June 15, 2010


grizzled: "Civilizations with mysterious mystical powers of precognition are not taken over by a small number of knights in armor armed with swords and blunderbusses."

Haven't you ever seen Aguirre, the Wrath of God?
posted by sneebler at 3:23 PM on June 15, 2010


Obligatory Inconstant Moon link (couldn't find a link to the short story)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 3:25 PM on June 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


I stuck with the lazy way out.
which we will excuse, considering flt is the currently reigning champeen of multi-link, highly-detailed posts here. I'll even excuse the 1959/1859 typo, considering it takes me an hour to compose a one paragraph post with 4-5 links.

That said, is it my imagination or did I read that the low level of sun 'activity' in recent years is partly responsible for reducing or delaying some of the more severe Global Warming effects that have been predicted (and encouraging Climate Change Denialists)? So if a solar flare cuts out the power in most of the developed world, it'll probably happen on the 512th consecutive hottest day on record when A/C use is at an all-time high, right?
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:25 PM on June 15, 2010


This seems like one of the lurid scenarios that gets new life every ten years or so.

I think it's actually every 11 years.
posted by hippybear at 3:25 PM on June 15, 2010 [4 favorites]


I used to miss night time. When I planned to move away from L.A. five years ago, I didn't intend to end up in a 20-residence enclave midway between the relatively small municipalities of San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach/"Five Cities", but I did, and I'm lovin' it. Great view of the night sky, but so close to Route 101/Pacific Coast Highway, I never escape the noise pollution. (But I hardly notice it since I grew up nearly as close to another stretch of the 101 Freeway IN Los Angeles)
posted by oneswellfoop at 3:35 PM on June 15, 2010


CBers and hams note: skip will be in! Talk to the world without boots.
posted by Cranberry at 3:44 PM on June 15, 2010


There's no way to reliably attribute specific reasons to the average global temperature in any given year, or even a short stretch of a few years. We are well on our way to fucking ourselves over nicely, but sun spots and solar flares will be the least of our concerns. This cycle repeats every 11 years, so unless you guys are less than 11 years old, you've lived through this before. Remember how bad it was? I had the vague notion that maybe my cell phone coverage would be fucked (more than usual) but then I remembered that I've had one since 2000, and I never noticed any solar-related problems last cycle.
posted by Humanzee at 3:57 PM on June 15, 2010


The 11 year cycle doesn't pin down the exact years of peak activity, but the general increase / decrease cycle. The most recent solar storm that had an impact on Earth was the March 1989 geomagnetic storm, that caused a black-out in Montreal, and auroras were seen as far south as Florida (not the same year, but actual aurora seen in Fl.) and Cuba. It might all be hype, but I think it's interesting hype.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:48 PM on June 15, 2010


e Rocky Mountains that were so bright, the glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning.

Daaaaayum.
posted by uni verse at 5:07 PM on June 15, 2010


paste fail.
[The aurora above the Rocky Mountains]
posted by uni verse at 5:08 PM on June 15, 2010


I have no worries about increased solar activity since filthy light thief is already casing the Sun.
posted by bwg at 6:02 PM on June 15, 2010


Americans who make jokes about pounds (and it could only be Americans) might not realise just how insular and narrow they are displaying themselves to be. Repeat - this is not a US website.

Interestingly for the climate science deniers, many of whom have suggested the observed temperature increase is due to solar activity, they'll get a whole new opportunity to come up with some nonsensical pseudo-science regarding what this is all supposed to mean for natural climate cycles.
posted by wilful at 6:33 PM on June 15, 2010


I say we nuke the bastard.
posted by qvantamon at 6:38 PM on June 15, 2010


Well, this is going to make shortwave a fun place to hang out for a while. Increased propagation and increased solar noise/ionospheric disturbances? I love my job!
posted by mykescipark at 7:00 PM on June 15, 2010


Could this new ramping-up of solar activity similarly correlate to the increased temperatures measured lately? And, with no snark intended at all, what could that mean for our understanding of global warming?

The Winsome Parker Lewis

Except solar cycles occur in periods of 11 years--not long enough to explain the increases measured since the dawn of human industrialization. And, as one of the links mentions, the solar activity hasn't ramped yet. We are in a period of the lowest measured solar activity since 1913. (What will happen when it does ramp up?).


On another note, in San Francisco Bay Area back in the 1960s there was this weatherman on the radio who was unusually accurate, considering how hard it is to forecast the weather here (because the weather comes from the ocean where there are effectively no weather stations). He also made a lot of money forecasting the weather for local farmers.

Turned out (if I remember the stories my Dad told me correctly) that he used sunspot activity in his forecasting.
posted by eye of newt at 7:49 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


It looks like the difference in global average temps from the solar maximum to the solar minimum is 0.18C (according to skepticalscience.com). Which could have quite a significant effect over the next couple of years when combined with the anthropogenic warming trend:

"The other significant finding is that solar forcing will add another 0.18°C warming on top of greenhouse warming between 2007 (we're currently at solar minimum) to the solar maximum around 2012. In other words, solar forcing will double the amount of global warming over the next five to six years."
posted by titus-g at 10:15 PM on June 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


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