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Scientists puzzled - What's wrong with the sun?

By Marshall Connolly (Catholic Online)
November 6th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Scientists are puzzling over the sun and why its activity is low when it should be much higher. Despite the predictions of an active sun for 2012 and 2013, the sun is quite pacific leaving scientists to wonder over what appears to be the sun's quietest period over the last century.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - It is an established fact that the sun has cycles. Every 11 years, the sun completes a cycle of activity, becoming alternatively active, then quiet during that span. Right now, the sun should be active, but it isn't. It's nearly as quiet as it is during its minimum, which has scientists scratching their heads. 


Solar activity can only be generally predicted and has fluctuated considerably in the past. Solar minimums, represented by weak activity are generally correlated with cold periods in Earth's history. The "Little Ice Age" that lasted somewhere between 1550 and 1850, saw temperatures well below average normals and has been correlated to a decline in solar output. That period of solar decline is known to scientists as the "Maunder Minimum." 

The Little Ice Age was typified by unpredictable weather and colder summers in northern Europe. The region was beset with sporadic famines. Glaciers crept down from mountains and consumer farms and villages, while lakes and ponds froze over across Europe so that people could skate on them. 

 The current level of solar activity is still well above Maunder Minimum levels, but it could portend the start of a general decline. Such a decline could affect Earth's climate for several centuries. 

Scientists have several ways of measuring solar activity, but one easy way is to count the number of sunspots on the solar disk. Currently, there are less than 50 identified and recognized sunspots on the solar disk, which means activity is very low. 

Sunspots are dark areas on the sun's surface which appear black to observers on Earth. Sunspost are not actually black, but they appear that way because they are cooler and less luminous than the surrounding surface of the sun. Sunspots are created when the suns magnetic field becomes twisted and distorted in places as a result of high internal activity. 

Periods of high activity are typified by an increase in the number and size of sunspots, which can release solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME). These events are eruptions on the solar surface which throw incredible quantities of solar material out into space. Many solar flares are much larger than planet Earth itself. 

Fortunately, the sun is so far away that solar flares cannot endanger the Earth. However, coronal mass ejections, which occur when a flare shoots a pulse of charged particles into space, can affect the planet. 

If Earth is in the path of a CME, people who live in far northern and southern latitudes can see the northern or southern lights in the night sky. These colorful displays known as auroras, are caused when the sun's charged particles strike gas molecules in the upper atmosphere. They pose no threat to humans. 

However, in the rarest cases, the electrical charge of these particles can cause power fluctuations on the ground. At least one such event caused a blackout across much of Canada in the 1980s. Today, these events can be predicted and prepared for to prevent disruptions. 

During the solar minimum, these events simply do not occur. So while solar minimum means auroras become rare, it may also mean cooler temperatures for the planet. 

Scientists still do not fully understand the processes involved, so they cannot make any firm predictions. Although the sun is quiet just now, it could erupt with activity in the days to come. There is simply no way to forecast what will happen next. 

However, if the sun remains quiet, it'll be bad news for fans of the northern lights, and puzzling news for scientists who predicted  this would be an active year for the sun. 


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