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Why Should We Care About Sunspots Anyway?

Friday, 26 August 2011

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Image 1 - The Sun and sunspots in visible light - 25 AUG 2011

In the past few of years there has been discussion about the end of the world by certain fanatical religious groups. Some of those doomsday predictions have blamed the Sun and the coming 2012-3 ‘Solar Sunspot Maximum’ as the source of our demise. Unfortunately, the coming solar sunspot maximum, while being a potential cause of both disruption and beauty, is a regular cycle that occurs approximately every eleven years and rarely is noticed by the average person. The highest sunspot maximum in the last 400 years occurred in December 1957 (SEE Image 4), but this upcoming sunspot maximum is predicted to be significantly less intense than most cycles.

Still, the sunspot activity is important and even exciting for those who are regular observers of our closest star. While many aspects of the Sun remain a mystery, scientists have confirmed that sunspots are one of the most important and potentially dangerous solar events to threaten Earth’s human infrastructure..in space, …on the ground, …and underneath the ground. In 1859, a massive solar flare generated from a sunspot that was being observed by Richard Carrington hit Earth eighteen hours later and caused a once in 500-year event that disrupted telegraph transmissions and lit up the skies with auroras as far south as Hawai’i¹. At the time, most people around the world were mystified by the event and what caused it. Were a similar event to occur today it potentially could cause massive damage to satellites, power lines, and pipelines because of the electromagnetic fields generated in a solar flare.

Image 2 - The Sun (same day/time) through a 304 angstrom extreme ultraviolet filter

Fortunately, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) has put into place multiple satellitesª to monitor and analyze the Sun’s activities and they are starting to pay rich dividends in understanding the effects of solar flare and how they impact planet Earth. For the first time in the history of the world we are:  1) documenting activity on the Sun, 2) 360º around it, 3) in real-time, 4) 24/7/365. It is a star that has a dedicated group of paparazzi scientists watching it’s every action and reaction. Katy Perry and Lady Gaga could only hope to have as much attention as our Sun gets everyday.

The Sun is photographed through multiple filters to give scientists a clearer picture of the dynamics that occur beyond visible light and offer insight to the driving forces in and around visible features like sunspots. For example, Images 2 and 3 taken by the SOHO satellite that is in position between the Earth and the Sun reveals much greater activity in the Extreme Ultraviolet than we can see in the visible light range of Image 1.

So what are sunspots?

A quote from a recent news release from NASA stated:

Sunspots are planet-sized islands of magnetism that float in solar plasma.²

Image 3 - The Sun (same day/time) through a 284 angstrom extreme ultraviolet filter

Scientists believe that the eleven year cycle is attributed to the mechanism for sunspots circulating deep into the plasma under the surface of the Sun then return back to the surface as a hole or sunspot. Once on the surface, large bubbles of magnetically charged, super-heated plasma forms in and above the sunspot until they burst causing a solar flare that sends part of the material of the Sun (Coronal Mass Ejections) outward. When that solar flare is directed at Earth scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) determine whether or not it will be a threat to satellites, power systems, and pipelines. Space weather alerts are issued anytime solar activity might cause interference or damage to Earth’s human-made infrastructure to allow the operators of those systems to prepare.

Image 4: Historical Account of Sunspot Cycles

Understanding the sunspot maximum is vital to preserving our way of life, which is built on systems that can be vulnerable to solar flares and their effects. We can no longer can take the Sun for granted. It is not a constant star that never changes, and we must be aware of what is happening on our Sun or risk a world-wide disaster. 

***

Questions for Young Scientists:

1) Are sunspots a threat to humans?  If not, why? If so, how?

2) Who keeps watch over the Sun and it’s activities?  (Name at least one organization and what it’s role is in observing the Sun.)

3) Are most people aware of the Sun’s ‘weather’?  Why or why not?

References and Notes:

(I am using the APA style citation for a Professional Website)

¹National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science. (2008). A Super Solar Flare. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2008/06may_carringtonflare/

ªAmong the satellites are the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), STEREO A, STEREO B, and the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Click to learn more about them.

²National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science. (2011). Sunspot Breakthrough. Retrieved August 25, 2011, from http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/25aug_sunspotbreakthrough/

NOAA’s Space Weather Now webpage. Click to follow.  Also check out SpaceWeather.com‘s page for other interesting Space Weather news.

Image Credits:

Image 1 – Courtesy of SOHO/MDI consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

Image 2 – Courtesy of SOHO/EIT consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

Image 3 – Courtesy of SOHO/EIT consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.

Image 4 – Chart by Robert A. Rhode, Image thanks to Global Warming Art at http://www.globalwarmingart.com/wiki/File:Sunspot_Numbers_png

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Friday, 26 August 2011 11:17 AM

    Hi Paul I just wanted to give a little feedback on your sunspot article. My daughter is in1/2 day Kinder. I began to read the article to her and she wandered off about1/3 through. I stopped reading and she came back in and said ‘Can you tell me more about sunspots mom?’ I read some more and she wandered off and came back with several drawings of the sun and sunspots 🙂 And asked me to read more. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Friday, 26 August 2011 12:50 PM

      Jayme:

      That is so great to hear!!! It sounds like my son who’s in Miss Wilson’s class. He is interested in everything, but he needs it offered in small doses. Once he catches on then he will talk forever on it! Thank you again for sharing that story!

      Paul

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