Brace Yourselves: An Upcoming Solar Maximum and Its Potential Impact

2 min

Mathew Owens, an esteemed professor of space physics at the University of Reading, has provided insights into the upcoming Solar Maximum phenomenon. His extensive research on space science and weather related to solar activities provides a captivating glimpse into what to expect from this natural celestial event.

The Solar Maximum is a phase in the solar cycle where solar activity reaches its zenith. Characterized by the Sun’s magnetic field becoming its strongest, most disordered, and dynamic, it leads to a surge in solar activities. This increase can incite extreme space weather events, including solar flares and eruptions, potentially disrupting radio communications, the power grid, and posing a significant risk to astronauts’ health.

Solar cycles usually span 11 years, with the Solar Maximum occurring roughly in the middle. The last Solar Maximum, which took place between 2012 and 2014, was notably weak, resulting in milder space weather. However, the upcoming Solar Maximum, anticipated to start in 2025, is predicted to return to average values. This could mean a more significant impact on space weather and its potential effects.

The Solar Maximum is brought about by the turbulent movements of plasma within the Sun, which produce and modify the Sun’s magnetic field. This magnetic field reaches its peak strength during the Solar Maximum, leading to an uptick in events like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

Solar flares are comprised of high-energy photons, such as X-rays, that can increase the ionization in Earth’s upper atmosphere, thereby disrupting radio communications. On the other hand, CMEs are eruptions of solar magnetic field and material that fuel geomagnetic storms. These disturbances can damage the power distribution grid and increase the likelihood of high-energy particle bursts heading towards Earth.

However, the visible effects of the Solar Maximum are often elusive. It is challenging to definitively associate a problem in the power grid to space weather, even if it’s caused by solar activities. One noticeable effect is the increase in aurora activity, commonly known as Northern and Southern Lights, at various latitudes.

Increased solar particles interacting with molecules in Earth’s atmosphere result in brighter, more extensive aurora displays. Furthermore, scientists have discovered signals of the solar cycle, such as temperature and ozone level changes, in Earth’s stratosphere.

Our growing dependence on technology raises the stakes, making space weather an escalating risk. The most significant concern is the threat it poses to the power grid, primarily due to the cascading hazards resulting from prolonged power loss. However, a stronger solar cycle simply means a higher probability of extreme space weather events, not a guarantee.

It’s important to note that extreme space weather can occur even in smaller solar cycles. During the weak Solar Maximum of cycle 24, a distant spacecraft experienced one of the most energetic CMEs ever seen. A CME of that scale directed at Earth could cause substantial disruptions to the power grid or severe damage to satellite hardware.

NASA Goddard

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