Sunbathing at Solar Max
"We're in the maximum phase of the solar cycle now," says Dr. David Hathaway, a solar physicist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, "and it will probably persist for another year or more. This one is somewhat smaller than the last two maxima in 1989 and 1979, but it's definitely bigger than average."
Above: The sunspot number is soaring in the year 2000, which marks the peak of another 11-year sunspot cycle. A white curve displaying monthly-averaged International Sunspot Numbers is overlaid on an x-ray image of the Sun. [more information]
Fortunately for beach-goers, elevated levels of solar activity around the peak of the sunspot cycle do not substantially increase the risk of sunburns on Earth. Our planet's atmosphere acts as a shield against the most harmful forms of radiation -- and the shielding actually increases slightly near the peak of the solar cycle. So, if you failed to buy any super-protective Solar Max Sunscreen for your Labor Day on the beach, you can relax. There was nothing to worry about beyond the usual forms of skin cancer and exposure-related maladies.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation comes from the Sun in a range of wavelengths; some are completely blocked by the atmosphere, while others pass through to the Earth's surface.
The light that scientists call UV has wavelengths that range between 400 nanometers (nm) and 100 nm. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or one-millionth of a millimeter.
In general, the shorter the radiation's wavelength, the more energy it contains and the more damaging it can be to people, plants and animals. UV radiation with a wavelength of 400 nm -- which is close to visible light -- is not dangerous to people, while 100 nm UV -- which is closer to X-rays (less than 1 nm) -- is very dangerous. Fortunately, atmospheric ozone, oxygen and other gases block out the most dangerous UV photons at wavelengths shorter than 300 nm.
Above: This image, courtesy of Dr. Judith Lean at the US Naval Research Laboratory, shows three extreme ultraviolet (30 nm) pictures of the Sun captured by the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory at different times during the current solar cycle. In 1996, near solar minimum, the extreme ultraviolet Sun was nearly featureless. Near the peak of the cycle, the Sun is dotted by fiery regions of hot gas trapped in magnetic fields above sunspots and plages. These active regions produce copious numbers of extreme ultra-violet and X-ray photons that are absorbed in outer layers of our atmosphere before they reach Earth's surface.
"The extreme ultraviolet photons that are most intense during the peak of the solar cycle aren't the same as the UV rays that give you sunburns," notes Dr. Judith Lean, a physicist at the US Naval Research Laboratory. "Sunburns come from the UV-A and UV-B bands around 300 nanometers. Extreme ultraviolet photons from the Sun are at least 10 times more energetic than UV-A and UV-B and they vary 100 times more [between solar minimum and solar maximum]. It's a good thing they're all
Heightened levels of solar ultraviolet radiation can actually strengthen the shielding capacity of Earth's atmosphere by a slight amount.
The increase of UV radiation around 200 nm during Solar Max has the effect of increasing ozone production in the stratosphere. Ozone is formed in the stratosphere when high-energy UV radiation splits oxygen molecules into two oxygen atoms. One of those atoms then recombines with an oxygen molecule to form a three-atom oxygen molecule: ozone.
The exact amount of increase in stratospheric ozone is still debated, but the total increase in the ozone above people's heads is generally agreed to be about 1 or 2 percent during Solar Maximum. This added ozone helps to offset the slight increase in UV radiation at wavelengths that reach the ground.
Spaceborne TOMS instruments are able to monitor erythemal UV radiation levels on the ground. Every day a new map is published at the TOMS web site. In areas of the globe marked by red, yellow or pink (see above), prolonged exposure to the Sun can be dangerous.
Above: Daily updates of erythemal UV exposure around the world can be found on the TOMS Web site. Colors indicate the intensity of solar ultraviolet radiation reaching plant and animal life after it has been filtered through stratospheric ozone, clouds and aerosols multiplied by its biological damage potential. Red, yellow and pink denote levels that can be especially dangerous with prolonged exposure. [more information]
"From the viewpoint of a beach-goer, the critical thing is the degree of cloudiness," says Herman. "The reason that August is so much more dangerous than April in the northern hemisphere (the two months have approximately the same sun angle) is because August usually has much less cloud cover than April. However, a clear day in either month will have the same effect on health."
"The day of the year is also important because the largest variation of UV irradiance (after clouds) is caused by the slant path of the radiation through the atmosphere. The slant path is at a minimum around the time of the summer solstice," which leads to the largest UV exposure, explained Herman.
Herman says that daily and weekly variations in the ozone layer are much larger than the effect of the solar cycle. "Because of wave activity in the stratosphere and troposphere, there is a considerable variation as a function of longitude (at a fixed latitude). The entire ozone field rotates about the Earth, relative to a fixed point on the ground, in about 2 to 3 weeks. From the viewpoint of an observer on the ground, it appears that the ozone field overhead varies on a daily basis by a few percent at latitudes of 30 degrees and much more at latitudes above 50 degrees," he explained.
The largest changes at middle latitudes are those driven by the Quasi Biennial Oscillation or QBO effect. "This effect is caused by fairly low level winds that first blow eastward and then westward on an approximately 2.3 year cycle," says Herman. "This wind system causes ozone amounts at low and middle latitudes to vary far more than the solar cycle effect." A paper by Herman and collaborators just accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research describes how QBO oscillations cause multi-year changes in UV irradiance of ±15% at 300 nm and ±5% at 310 nm at the equator and at middle latitudes.
TOMS-EP and other ozone-measurement programs are important parts of a global environmental effort of NASA's Earth Science enterprise, a long-term research program designed to study Earth's land, oceans, atmosphere, ice, and life as a total integrated system.Web Links
TOMS Web Site -- data and information about the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) instrument aboard NASA's Earth Probe (TOMS-EP) satellite.
SpaceWeather.com -- Daily updates and news about solar activity and all forms of space weather.
Solar S'Mores -- As a result of the solar maximum, Earth's atmosphere is "puffed up" like a marshmallow over a campfire leading to extra drag on Earth-orbiting satellites.
Sunspot Cycle Predictions -- from the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center
Stratospheric Ozone: An Electronic Textbook -- a comprehensive tutorial about the chemistry and dynamics of the ozone layer
The Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SBUV) instrument on NASA's Nimbus-7 satellite --Operating from November 1978 to June 1990, the SBUV sensor measured the intensities of various UV wavelengths backscattered from the Earth's atmosphere over the course of approximately one solar cycle. Based on SBUV data scientists concluded that over the course of an 11-year solar cycle, most of the variation in radiation intensity occurs at wavelengths shorter than 280 nm.
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|For lesson plans and educational activities related to breaking science news, please visit Thursday's Classroom||Authors: Patrick Barry, Tony Phillips
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