The peak of the next sunspot cycle is expected in late 2011 or mid-2012 — potentially affecting airline flights, communications, satellites and electrical transmissions. But forecasters can't agree on how intense it will be. During an active solar period, violent eruptions occur more often on the Sun. Solar flares and vast explosions, known as coronal mass ejections, shoot highly charged matter toward Earth.
Sunspots are regions of the solar surface that are darker and cooler than their surroundings. Caused by fluctuations in the intense magnetic field that surrounds our closest star, sunspot activity increases and decreases on an 11-year cycle. Intense sunspot activity brings with it solar storms, events where charged particles stream off the surface of the sun, with the potential to wreak havoc with our planet's upper atmosphere. During solar storms, satellites can be damaged, power transmission can be disrupted and the skies light up with auroras. There are also links between sunspot activity and climate.
Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, have used a new model of the sun's interior to refine predictions of future sunspot activity. By using data going back over a century, the scientists were able to determine that the sun's magnetic field has a memory of around 20 years. This model was able to predict the past six cycles with around 97 percent accuracy, and has led to revised predictions about the next cycle, number 24.
According to Mausimi Dikpati, one of the physicists who gave a press conference yesterday, the next sunspot cycle will be between 30 and 50 percent stronger than the current cycle, with a peak in activity in 2012. Armed with a six year warning, mission planners at NASA, satellite controllers and engineers in the power industry ought to have ample time to take this looming danger into account.
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