Will 2012 Be the Year of the Solar Storm?

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The Sun Imaged by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory Image Credit: NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory

Solar Activity/Sunspot Cycle

There is an 11 year cycle in the amount of solar magnetic activity, including the number of sunspots and other solar storm activity. The total solar magnetic activity reaches a maximum approximately every 11 years and drops to a minimum between the maxima. During solar maxima, the number of sunspots, solar flares, CMEs, and geomagnetic storms are higher than normal. During solar minima these manifestations of solar magnetic activity are greatly reduced.

This 11 year cycle is not perfectly regular. The maxima are not always exactly 11 years apart. The amount of solar activity and the number of sunspots are not the same from one solar maximum to the next. There are periods where the activity during the solar maxima is much higher than normal. Solar activity, even during what should be solar maximum, can also become virtually nonexistent for decades. For example during the Maunder Minimum in the late seventeenth century there were virtually no sunspots for over 50 years.

Interestingly these longer solar activity cycles may affect Earth’s climate. The Maunder Minimum in sunspot activity corresponded to a time period referred to the little ice age because the weather was so much colder than normal. There was also a period called the Medieval Grand Maximum beginning about 1000 AD when sunspot activity was much higher than normal. Earth’s climate during this time was warm enough to allow Vikings to colonize Greenland.

Sunspot Cycle 24 in 2012

The current sunspot cycle, sunspot cycle 24, has been somewhat unusual. Sunspot cycle 23 peaked during the year 2000, but the solar minimum between cycles 23 and 24 was longer and deeper than usual. The possibility that the Sun was entering another minimum similar to the Maunder Minimum occurred to some astronomers. Sunspot cycle 24 did, however, finally start.

NASA’s January 2012 Predictions for Cycle 24 Sunspots in 2012 – Image Credit: NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center

What will sunspot cycle 24 be like? Predicting solar activity, which is the solar equivalent of predicting weather, is difficult and subject to the same possibility of being wrong as weather predictions. As of this writing in January 2012, however, the latest prediction from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center for sunspot cycle 24 is that it will peak in February 2013 and that it will be a relatively weak solar maximum. If the prediction is correct, sunspot cycle 24 will have the weakest maximum since 1928.

If solar astronomers are correct, 2012 will not be the year of the solar storm. So, why is there so much fuss in some media about solar storms in 2012?

Origin of Media Predictions of 2012 Solar Storms

The predictions of major solar storms in 2012 do not come from respected astronomers.

The rather large ‘ignorance industry’ is, however, predicting general havoc in 2012. The doomsday scenarios claim that the Maya calendar comes to an end in 2012. At the same time the Sun will align with the galactic center causing strong tidal forces that will cause major earthquakes as well as extreme solar storms.

These claims are nonsense.

The Sun will not perfectly align with the galactic center in 2012, and even if it were to do so, the tidal effects on either the Earth or the Sun would be negligible. I’ve done the math and describe it thoroughly in “2012 Doomsday Prediction: Astronomy and Fallacies”

Solar Predictions for 2012

Solar weather predictions are not perfect, but respected astronomers are not predicting unusually high levels of solar storm activity during 2012. 2012 is not the year of the solar storm.

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