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Our planet has been affected by solar storms

by RANDY MANN
| December 18, 2023 1:05 AM

Earlier this year, I wrote an article stating that our sun was in the middle of a stronger “maxima” cycle. During these events, there are increased number of sunspots, or solar storms, on the sun. The magnetic poles will usually flip during these cycle changes as the North Pole becomes the South Pole and vice-versa. The last solar cycle, which was number 24, began in late 2008 and ended in late 2019. We’re now in Solar Cycle 25, which is the 25th cycle since 1755 when extensive observations of the sun began.

During the late 2000s through the 2010s, sunspot activity was very low. There were long stretches when there were no sunspots reported. In fact, during 2008-09, NASA reported that the sun was in a “deep solar minimum” as there were no sunspots for 266 days in 2008.

Within the last year, the number of sunspots has been the highest in more than a decade. Daily sunspot numbers over the last several weeks have ranged from 90 to 140. However, there have been days earlier this year when sunspots topped 200. June was a very active month as the average was over 160 sunspots per day. The highest was June 22 with 240 sunspots.

With the high number of sunspots, there is a big concern for solar flares that would have the potential to damage electronic equipment or satellites orbiting the Earth. These flares can also cause radio blackouts, which was the case Dec. 14.

The most powerful solar flares are X-class and the latest one was the most powerful in six years to hit the Earth. The explosion from the sun led to a wave of solar radiation that temporarily ionized the top of our planet’s atmosphere. As a result, there were widespread radio blackouts that spanned over two hours and covered most of North and South America on Dec. 14, according to NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

If a solar flare is strong enough, it can also launch large clouds of magnetized plasma into space. This is known as a coronal mass ejection (CME). During these events, we could see tremendous auroral displays of the Northern Lights but can also cause major issues with satellites and ground-based electronics.

According to an article on Livescience.com, there have been 21 major X-class flares since 2019, the time this maxima cycle began. There were 12 of them in 2023 and at least three have hit the Earth with CMEs. These occurred in early January, the next in February and then in July. Solar activity is expected to be very high through at least early 2024 based on the recent solar events.

According to space.com, a strong solar storm swept across the Earth on Feb. 27 that forced a 4.5-hour delay to a Starlink launch from Florida. The solar storm also disrupted GPS signals resulting in the pausing of operations of several Canadian oil rigs. In February of 2022, SpaceX lost about 40 satellites after being launched during a mild geomatic storm.

According to space scientists, the recent event likely indicates that the peak of this solar maxima cycle is close. Coming into the peak of this active solar cycle, if one of the super-strong X-class solar flares were to directly hit our planet, then we could experience another “Carrington Event.” On Sept. 1-2, 1859, tremendous auroras of red, green and purple erupted across the Earth. The auroras were so brilliant that one could read a newspaper at night and could be seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii. Telegraph systems all over North America and Europe stopped working and some generated sparks and fires.

Many scientists say that if that type of event were to happen today, the world’s high-tech infrastructure, which includes major satellites, would be severely damaged and perhaps be ground to a halt. Damage estimates from a Carrington-type event today would range between at least $500 million to over $2.5 trillion.

In terms of our local weather, we’ve received 3.56 inches of moisture for December. The normal for the month is 3.90 inches. The next storm system is expected to arrive Monday night and Tuesday. Once again, the air mass associated with this storm is expected to be too warm to produce any significant snow in the lower elevations. However, it should be cold enough in the higher elevations to produce some measurable snow.

Just in front of Christmas, there is another system that may produce some rain or snow showers in lower elevations, but amounts are expected to be light. The long-range computer models are indicating another storm brewing in the Gulf of Alaska that could bring additional moisture to North Idaho and surrounding regions around the middle of next week, probably in the form of rain. Therefore, our monthly moisture total for December will likely end up above average. Around New Year’s Day, there is an increasing chance of snow in the lower elevations. As usual, time will tell.

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Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com.