Scientists say the Sun is about to enter a peak activity period called a “solar maximum.” This point in the solar cycle typically brings abundant sunspots and flares as the Sun’s magnetic poles flip. But what does that mean for us here on Earth?
First, it’s essential to understand what’s happening on the Sun during a solar maximum. The Sun constantly undergoes a type of motion called convection, in which its plasma boils toward the surface, then sinks back toward the star’s 27 million-degree core as it cools. This process is what builds strong magnetic fields at the Sun’s poles. Every decade or so, however, this convection becomes unstable, causing the Sun’s north and south poles to flip. This point in the solar cycle triggers a period of intense activity on the Sun’s surface, resulting in what we call a solar maximum.
Solar maximum gives astronomers beautiful images of sunspots and bright solar flares. Astronomers also spend this period looking for coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, in which the Sun spits out massive balls of plasma at hundreds to thousands of kilometers per second. But because the Sun is so close to Earth, these phenomena have real-life implications for us humans and our electricity-dependent infrastructure.
A CME on Aug. 31, 2012. (Credit: NASA)
According to University of Reading space physics professor Mathew Owens, who spoke with Insider this week, this next solar maximum could disrupt radio communications, air travel, and our energy grid. Earth’s ionosphere is affected when the Sun tosses energy and charged particles our way. Because radio signals need to bounce off the ionosphere to reach their destinations, this spells trouble for public safety, weather tracking, and aerospace operations. Planes also require radio and GPS communications that can be similarly disrupted. And when geomagnetic storms create currents in Earth’s ionosphere, particles on the ground are often impacted, resulting in seemingly random transformer explosions and other electrical disturbances.
Astronauts in space could also find themselves in danger. When solar storms occur, the Sun sheds solar energetic particles, which are so radioactive that exposure can be fatal. As NASA, SpaceX, and the ESA plan missions for the near future, this will need to be top of mind.
The worst solar flare we’ve dealt with here on Earth was in 1859, when global telegraph communications were disrupted. Since then, we’ve seen a few flares and geomagnetic storms that have disrupted air travel and satellite systems—including last year’s, which destroyed dozens of Starlink satellites.
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