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.
The Effects of Space Weather
While most solar flares and other types of space weather flung off the sun don't affect us all the way down here on Earth, particularly strong manifestations can create disruptions from time to time. Intense solar activity that reaches us triggers geomagnetic storms. These storms can temporarily disable, partially damage or completely destroy satellites, especially if the people who operate them don't get enough advanced notice. GPS and other communication systems suffer as a result, a particular problem at higher latitudes and higher altitudes.
Because of these malfunctions, transpolar airline flights sometimes need to be rerouted. Apart from potentially losing GPS navigation and radio communication, a plane's avionics can be disrupted and its passengers and crew exposed to unsafe levels of radiation -- all of which are serious safety concerns. Power lines and pipelines are sometimes damaged as well. Disruptions to either can cause energy grids to stutter or break down. Again, with warning, the worst of the trouble can often be mitigated, but issues like increased pipe corrosion and widespread blackouts may still occur.
So will 2012 bring any major solar flares? It's feasible, although the current cycle probably won't have reached its peak by then, and, as mentioned earlier, isn't predicted to be as active or as intense as previous cycles. If there are solar flares, will they cause problems for us here on Earth? It's possible, but with a little foresight and preventative planning, it shouldn't turn into too much of an issue. One thing that is certain, however, is that solar flares are not something doomsday theorists can point to with any credibility as a potential cause for the end of the world. Those claims just aren't based on good science.
Man has always been fascinated by the world beyond our own, making astronomy one of the oldest sciences. Test your astro knowledge with our quiz.
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