Solar Maximum Predicted Sooner: Sun’s Increased Activity Poses Risks for Earth

Sun’s Solar Cycle Peak May Occur Sooner Than Predicted, Scientists Say

The sun is entering the peak of its current solar cycle, and scientists believe that this peak may be happening sooner than expected. Solar cycles, which occur roughly every 11 years, consist of periods of low and high solar activity, characterized by the presence of sunspots on the sun’s surface. These sunspots, driven by the sun’s magnetic fields, can reach the size of Earth or larger. During the peak of solar activity, known as solar maximum, the sun’s magnetic poles flip, and the sun becomes more intense and active. The current solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, has shown more activity than anticipated, with scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center tracking more sunspots than during the previous cycle’s peak.

Mark Miesch, a research scientist at the Space Weather Prediction Center, explains that while every solar cycle is different, the current solar maximum can be likened to hurricane season in terms of the intensity of storms. However, unlike hurricane season, which lasts a few months, solar maximum can last a few years. The increase in solar activity has also led to strong solar flares and coronal mass ejections, which are large clouds of ionized gas and magnetic fields that erupt from the sun’s outer atmosphere. These solar storms can impact various systems and technologies on Earth, such as electric power grids, GPS, aviation, low-Earth orbit satellites, and even crewed space missions.

Dr. Alex Young, associate director for science within NASA’s Heliophysics Science Division, points out that the increase in activity is expected as solar maximum approaches. As the solar maximum draws closer, sunspots will form with greater frequency, leading to heightened activity. Miesch emphasizes the importance of monitoring and understanding space weather, especially as society becomes increasingly reliant on technology and electrical power grids. According to Miesch, although the current cycle is not remarkably different from the sun’s perspective, it is notable from our point of view due to our dependence on technological systems.

New predictions for the solar maximum were made by Scott McIntosh, deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Robert Leamon, an associate research scientist at the Goddard Planetary Heliophysics Institute. Instead of focusing solely on tracking sunspots, the researchers studied the “terminator,” the point when activity from one solar cycle disappears from the sun’s surface and is followed by a sharp increase in activity in the new cycle. By tracking the magnetic activity that leads to sunspots, the researchers believe they can make more accurate predictions.

Solar maximum can last about two years, and the biggest effects on Earth may occur after the actual peak. The occurrence of solar storms is not limited to the maximum phase; they can happen at any time in the solar cycle. The Space Weather Prediction Center uses various data sources to forecast and provide warnings about solar flares, coronal mass ejections, and other space weather that may affect Earth. These forecasts can be issued hours to weeks in advance.

Despite the potential risks associated with increased solar activity, there is a positive side effect: auroras. The energetic particles released by solar activity interact with Earth’s magnetic field to create the aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights). These colorful displays can be awe-inspiring and are more likely to occur in locations such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Scandinavia, and the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Overall, as the sun’s solar cycle approaches its peak, scientists continue to monitor and predict solar activity to better understand its potential impact on Earth’s technological systems and to appreciate the natural phenomenon of auroras.