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Next Solar Max Will Be a Big One

Illustration of the “conveyor belt” on the Sun. Image credit: NASA. Click to enlarge.
We’ve now reached the Sun’s solar minimum; there’s not a sunspot anywhere across the surface of our closest star. Give it a few years, though, and it should be anything but quiet. Solar researchers think they understand the long term cycles of solar activity, and they’re predicting that the next Solar Maximum – expected to arrive between 2010 and 2012 – will be the strongest in 50 years.

It’s official: Solar minimum has arrived. Sunspots have all but vanished. Solar flares are nonexistent. The sun is utterly quiet.

Like the quiet before a storm.

This week researchers announced that a storm is coming–the most intense solar maximum in fifty years. The prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). “The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one,” she says. If correct, the years ahead could produce a burst of solar activity second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958.

That was a solar maximum. The Space Age was just beginning: Sputnik was launched in Oct. 1957 and Explorer 1 (the first US satellite) in Jan. 1958. In 1958 you couldn’t tell that a solar storm was underway by looking at the bars on your cell phone; cell phones didn’t exist. Even so, people knew something big was happening when Northern Lights were sighted three times in Mexico. A similar maximum now would be noticed by its effect on cell phones, GPS, weather satellites and many other modern technologies.

Dikpati’s prediction is unprecedented. In nearly-two centuries since the 11-year sunspot cycle was discovered, scientists have struggled to predict the size of future maxima—and failed. Solar maxima can be intense, as in 1958, or barely detectable, as in 1805, obeying no obvious pattern.

The key to the mystery, Dikpati realized years ago, is a conveyor belt on the sun.

We have something similar here on Earth—the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt, popularized in the sci-fi movie The Day After Tomorrow. It is a network of currents that carry water and heat from ocean to ocean–see the diagram below. In the movie, the Conveyor Belt stopped and threw the world’s weather into chaos.

The sun’s conveyor belt is a current, not of water, but of electrically-conducting gas. It flows in a loop from the sun’s equator to the poles and back again. Just as the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt controls weather on Earth, this solar conveyor belt controls weather on the sun. Specifically, it controls the sunspot cycle.

Solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center (NSSTC) explains: “First, remember what sunspots are–tangled knots of magnetism generated by the sun’s inner dynamo. A typical sunspot exists for just a few weeks. Then it decays, leaving behind a ‘corpse’ of weak magnetic fields.”

Enter the conveyor belt.

“The top of the conveyor belt skims the surface of the sun, sweeping up the magnetic fields of old, dead sunspots. The ‘corpses’ are dragged down at the poles to a depth of 200,000 km where the sun’s magnetic dynamo can amplify them. Once the corpses (magnetic knots) are reincarnated (amplified), they become buoyant and float back to the surface.” Presto—new sunspots!

All this happens with massive slowness. “It takes about 40 years for the belt to complete one loop,” says Hathaway. The speed varies “anywhere from a 50-year pace (slow) to a 30-year pace (fast).”

When the belt is turning “fast,” it means that lots of magnetic fields are being swept up, and that a future sunspot cycle is going to be intense. This is a basis for forecasting: “The belt was turning fast in 1986-1996,” says Hathaway. “Old magnetic fields swept up then should re-appear as big sunspots in 2010-2011.”

Like most experts in the field, Hathaway has confidence in the conveyor belt model and agrees with Dikpati that the next solar maximum should be a doozy. But he disagrees with one point. Dikpati’s forecast puts Solar Max at 2012. Hathaway believes it will arrive sooner, in 2010 or 2011.

“History shows that big sunspot cycles ‘ramp up’ faster than small ones,” he says. “I expect to see the first sunspots of the next cycle appear in late 2006 or 2007—and Solar Max to be underway by 2010 or 2011.”

Who’s right? Time will tell. Either way, a storm is coming.

Original Source: Science@NASA

About 

Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sylvie LG Pollard January 8, 2008, 1:34 PM

    2007 was one of the warmest years on record, even though we are currently in solar minimum and a La Nina, which will last until spring. Global warming will continue to gather even more pace as we continue to burn fossil fuels. Then when we go into the next solar maximum and El Nino between 2009 – 2012 (and bearing in mind the next solar maximum is expected to be huge!) We’ll be SMOKIN!! Depressin in it?

  • J Lund February 20, 2008, 3:44 PM

    in the end, everything will be ok though, right!?
    with a maximum sun, crossing the solar-equator, perhaps the magnetic poles shifting, a natural catastrophic event, war; we’ve all been receiving the messages of time around 2012.
    and this time ’round, hopefully we can observe just how obsessed we are with not only trying to control nature, but how inadequate our thinking is about the expanse of existence itself and conscious-awareness.
    coincidentally and ironically, it all seems to coalesce.
    everything is going to change.
    …and sometimes we just need a little more light to shine, to figure it out! so keep hoping this coming solar maximum, yields far more progress than testing nuclear weapons and killing each other.

  • Marie September 7, 2008, 7:20 AM

    I’ve been told by scientists that actually if the solar tempests hit the earth at a south angle it could cause a massive world wide black out.
    It seems that everything tends to give us hints
    about a catastrophe that would be the biggest one because of our dependancy on electricity
    What do you think?

  • john December 14, 2008, 8:38 PM

    will we die in 2012?

  • Lorna January 16, 2009, 5:23 AM

    John, Why do you think we will die?

  • Lynn Robbins February 6, 2009, 2:14 AM

    The sun is asleep. Almost zero sun spots for months and months now? But keep track of everything else happening now. Earth magnetism: reducing, Chandlers wobble: gone, heliosphere: disappearing, volcanism: up a lot, speed of North pole movement towards Siberia: increasing a lot every decade, light intensity of Venus: up, Global warming: happening on Mars and Earth, Earths shape: turned more spherical, Scientists explanation of all this: don’t know squat. Pole shift: coming soon to a neighborhood near you!

  • brokerdavelhr February 18, 2009, 1:24 AM

    You misquoted NASA big time pal – in 2001 they announced the solar max, and that but 2012, it will revert back to a solar min –
    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast15feb_1.htm

    Get your info right….moron

  • brokerdavelhr February 18, 2009, 1:30 AM

    Just read a few more of your articles and have come to the following conclusion:

    You either need a lot of help in your reading comprehension, have the worst case of selective hearing I have ever seen, or are just plain stupid. The thought of anyone taking you seriously disturbs me, and I am sorry that I was ever directed to your page in the first place. I shall find the one who directed me here, and slap him.

    PS- You and Gore must really get along as neither one of you has any idea of what they are talking about.

  • Trevor March 12, 2009, 1:56 PM

    brokerdavelhr you beteer start doing some reasearch before you say anything derogitory here and back it with facts. There is a green house effect and has nothing to do with what Al Gore has intened it is. It has to do with the increase in solordust and the higher activity in volcanic eruptions.
    And when the next super valcano erupts we are in for a new ICE AGE. This is called a nucleare winter.I am not a volcanoligist, but I have been doing research on the relationship between sunspots, solor dust and valcano’s.. They are related to one another. We are in for a Super Valcano to erupt. I think its going to be Yellowstone Park. Reasons are that:
    We are 40,000 years overdue.
    The elevation is rising under the lake.
    Water temps are increasing in the lakes and rivers
    animals are leaving the area
    The poisinous gases that are being released
    The increase in earthquakes in the area and surrounding states and with the increase in sunspots and solordust we are about to see in 2012.
    I beleave that we will be seeing massive increase in earthquakes and Hurricanes in the U.S. as well as typhones southeast Asia over the next 3years. 3/12/09

  • DEvok March 29, 2009, 10:59 PM

    WE WILL DIE AT THE SAME TIME NIBIRU IS COMING AND WE ARE DOOMED, THAT IS LIFE.

  • anyone April 19, 2009, 7:48 PM

    We haven’t had this few sunspots since 1913. that was when the Federal Reserve was established in the USA; right before World War I.. Foreboding, eh?

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