Are major solar flares coming in 2012?


The appearances of aurora borealis and aurora australis are indicators that space weather is active.
The appearances of aurora borealis and aurora australis are indicators that space weather is active.

The sun is an active yet predictable star, and experts can make both long- and short-term forecasts anticipating what to expect from it. And let's be clear: One thing they certainly don't expect is for it to send deadly ray-gun-style solar flares out to zap our planet to bits, in 2012 or any other year -- no matter what the doomsayers shout from their Internet soapboxes.

That's because forecasters know, for example, that the sun operates on a roughly 11-year solar cycle (or sunspot cycle). For the first few years of each cycle, sunspots and the resulting space weather gradually increase, before activity peaks and wanes. After a period of low-to-nil solar turbulence, the process begins again. That said, fluctuations in the sun's dynamic can cause great variations in solar cycles -- some are more powerful and prolonged, while at other times, the lull in a cycle (known as the solar minimum) is more pronounced.

During the highly active part of a solar cycle, sunspots are prone to generate phenomenon like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), occurrences that can be amazingly intense. Luckily, relatively few large solar flares or CMEs are typically aimed right at Earth during any given solar cycle, and when they are pointed our way, they're usually blocked and diverted by the Earth's magnetosphere. However, those that do reach Earth can have a noticeable impact.

The current cycle -- Solar Cycle 24 -- officially began on Jan. 4, 2008, and is currently projected to peak in June of 2013, although that could change as the cycle progresses. With a few exceptions, the intensity of past solar flares and other incarnations of space weather have fallen below earlier predictions. This solar cycle is also so far proving quite a bit tamer than others in recorded history. There have been some big flares, but apart from those, the average intensity has been roughly half that of the previous solar cycle. Nothing particularly devastating is expected on the horizon.

But since space weather can affect life here on Earth in a number of ways, especially in the extreme latitudes, we'll get into those details on the next page.