Solar Cycle Update
"If you look at it from day to day, the Sun’s activity fluctuates wildly," says Dr. David Hathaway, leader of the Marshall Space Flight Center's solar physics group. "If you look at the monthly values, they fluctuate wildly, as well."
Above: This image of the Sun recorded by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory on January 16, 2000, shows many sunspots. The sunspot number is increasing as we head toward solar maximum in mid-2000.
Prior to the Space Age, the most visible effect of solar activity was the showy aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, Hathaway said. "Because we’re more dependent on technology now -- in particular as we venture into space - it’s more important for us to understand solar activity and predict it reliably so people can take the necessary precautions."
For instance, during the solar maximum of 1989, such a "solar power surge" damaged transformers of the Hydro-Quebec power system, leaving 6 million people in Canada and the Northeast United States powerless for more than nine hours.
Scientists have worked for decades with dozens of prediction techniques, focusing on two methods to forecast sunspots: long-term predictions for the size of the next cycle and month-to-month forecasts within a given cycle. At best, their results have been mediocre. The long-term predictions, called precursor methods, only forecast a cycle’s general intensity. And the month-to-month forecasts were accurate only in the middle of a cycle.
Above: By combining data about geomagnetic activity during the previous solar cycle with sunspot counts for the current cycle, David Hathaway and collaborators are able to predict when the next sunspot maximum will occur. [Click here for details]. According to their results, the sunspot number -- and other forms of solar activity -- will peak beginning in mid-2000. The dotted lines above and below the solid curve line indicate the prediction curve's range of error.
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"Three out of the last four months have been right on what we have predicted," he said.
Hathaway predicts solar max 2000 will reach its peak in mid to late 2000, but high levels of activity will continue well into 2001. "The sunspot maximum is usually a broad peak," he said. "There is a two- or three-year period when activity is quite high." Still, he said, solar max 2000 will be "no record-breaker."Web Links
Solar Smoke Rings - a series of coronal mass ejections dazzle scientists.
Solar Cinema - Cool movies of a recent solar prominence.
SpaceWeather.com -follow the latest events on the Sun
Coronal Mass Ejections -from the Marshall Space Flight Center
SOHO home page -real-time images, screen savers, and more