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Humanity is not ready: Sun may reach dangerous peak sooner than scientists thought

Dmytro IvancheskulLife
Tornado and sunspot. Source: Andrew McCarthy/Jason Guenzel/collage by OBOZREVATEL

Scientists have probably made a mistake in their calculations about when the Sun might reach its 11-year maximum, putting the Earth and humanity in a rather unpleasant situation. Recent events on the star may indicate that the Sun will reach its maximum not in 2025, as previously predicted, but by the end of 2023.

This is reported by LIveScience with reference to several experts. Scientists also told what troubles this could lead to on Earth.

(Un)calm Sun

Our star reaches its maximum approximately every 11 years. At the beginning of this cycle, the magnetic field on the Sun is stable and keeps the plasma on the surface of the star, suppressing storms. But with each passing year, the magnetic field lines become tangled like a tangle of rubber bands, which eventually break and tear. As a result, the north pole becomes the south pole and vice versa.

The closer the Sun gets to the end of the cycle, the more aggressive it becomes, spewing fiery plasma clots, covering itself with dark spots the size of a planet and sending streams of powerful radiation into space.

All of this is dangerous for the Earth, as such storms on the Sun can disrupt communications, damage energy infrastructure, harm some living beings (including astronauts in orbit) and even disable satellites.

According to preliminary calculations, such a stormy period is expected to occur in 2025, but some scientists believe that there are all signs that it will happen much earlier and the storm on the Sun will be much stronger than expected. And, according to scientists, humanity is very poorly prepared for this.

As Alex James, a solar physicist at University College London in the UK, explained, to determine what period of the cycle the luminary is in, researchers observe sunspots - darker, colder, circular areas of our star's surface where coronal loops form.

"Sunspots appear when strong magnetic fields penetrate the surface of the Sun. By looking at these spots, we can get an idea of how strong and complex the Sun's magnetic field is at that moment," James explained.

The closer the Sun is to its maximum, the more spots it will have.

In 2019, experts from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggested that the peak of the 25th solar cycle would occur in 2025. But even then, their forecast did not seem correct to everyone, as sunspots on the Sun indicated a later stage of the cycle.

This was confirmed in December 2022 and January 2023, when an eight-year peak in sunspots was first recorded, and later the number of spots was more than twice as high as predicted (143 against the predicted 63).

The error of the forecasts was confirmed by solar flares, a key indicator of activity. In particular, in 2023, more powerful X-class flares have already been recorded than in the whole of 2022. At least one of these flares hit the Earth directly.

The bright lights of the northern lights, which arise as a result of a perturbation of the Earth's magnetosphere, were also evidence of powerful solar flares (OBOZREVATEL wrote about this in more detail here). Even Ukrainians saw them in March and April 2023.

Rare solar phenomena that have been observed in recent months may also indicate the approach of the solar maximum:

  • On 2 February, a huge polar vortex, or ring of fire, circled the Sun's north pole for more than 8 hours;
  • On 9 March, a plasma waterfall 96560 km high rose up and then fell back towards the Sun;
  • in March, a "solar tornado" raged for three days and was taller than 14 Earths stacked on top of each other.
Tornado in the sun

"All of this data suggests that the solar maximum will peak earlier, and it will be higher than expected," James said.

His opinion is shared by other physicists. For example, a research team led by Scott McIntosh, a solar physicist and deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, predicted that the solar maximum could peak later this year.

Past cycles show that solar maximums can last anywhere from one to two years, although scientists do not know for sure.

McIntosh also explained that the problem with NASA and NOOA's calculations is that they use a 30-year-old methodology, while science has already made a step forward. He believes that forecasts should be made taking into account the development of each individual cycle.

Impact on the Earth

Even if the Sun reaches its maximum earlier than expected, several other factors must coincide for it to cause problems on Earth. As Tsu Wei Fang, a researcher at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Centre, explained, solar storms must be directed in the right direction at the right time to reach Earth. According to her, the increase in solar activity makes this more likely, but does not guarantee that more storms will hit the planet.

If a powerful solar storm does occur, it could lead to ionisation of the Earth's upper atmosphere and shutdown of radio and satellites. Half the planet could experience a large-scale GPS failure.

According to Fang, if these technical problems coincide with a major natural disaster, such as an earthquake, the results could be catastrophic.

In addition, a severe solar storm can generate ground currents that can damage metal infrastructure, such as old power grids and railway tracks.

Aircraft passengers may be exposed to increased levels of radiation, although it is difficult to predict in advance whether the doses of solar radiation will be high enough to affect human health. Astronauts in Earth orbit or participants in the upcoming Artemis lunar mission will be exposed to even greater radiation.

Spots in the sun.

Geomagnetic storms can also disrupt the movements of grey whales and other animals that use the Earth's magnetic field lines to navigate.

The ionised upper atmosphere also thickens, creating additional drag on satellites in orbit and throwing them off course. In 2022, 40 Starlink satellites fell due to a solar storm, and as the number of satellites has only increased, the chances of a collision are only increasing.

Fang also suggests that a so-called superstorm could occur, similar to the most powerful storm in the history of observations, known as the Carrington event, which occurred in 1859. It was felt in Europe and America at the time. But the likelihood of such a scenario is unlikely.

The scientist also explained that in fact, people can do little to protect themselves from a direct solar storm. However, if there is an accurate forecast of when the storm will occur, it is possible to change the trajectories of satellites, land planes and identify vulnerable infrastructure.

Earlier, OBOZREVATEL also reported that the Sun is capable of producing an unprecedented superflare that would be catastrophic for humanity.

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