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Our sun is becoming more active

| March 6, 2023 1:05 AM

Last year, I wrote an article stating that our sun was waking up from its minimum cycle. 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.

Sunspots are storms on the sun and during the height of a cycle, its magnetic poles will usually flip as the North Pole becomes the South Pole and vice-versa. The last solar cycle, which was No. 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.

Within the last year, the number of sunspots has been the highest in about a decade. For the first two months of 2023, the average number of sunspots reported per day has been close to 140. There were several days in January, the 19th and 20th, when sunspots topped 200. The highest was 206 on Jan. 19, while the next day reported 205. On Feb. 11, there were 209 sunspots observed on the sun. Many scientists are speculating that we may be entering one of the strongest cycles in recorded history, which means more solar storms.

With the high number of sunspots, there is a concern for solar flares that would have the potential to damage electronic equipment or satellites orbiting the Earth. The most powerful solar flares are X-class. 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 geomagnetic storm. The article from space.com stated that when the charged particles from these solar storms reaches our planet and hits the atmosphere, the interaction will often result in the swelling of our atmosphere. This can cause the spacecraft to drag, and since the satellites were in a low orbit, the additional drag from the storm was too much for the spacecraft carrying the satellites.

The worst type of solar flare is the X-class and the sun produced seven of them in 2022. For the first two months of this year, there have been five. An M-class flare is considered to be a “medium-sized,” flare, but has the potential to cause brief radio blackouts. There were 19 M5-M9, M-Class flares in 2022 with seven in 2023. The peak of this Solar Cycle 25 is not expected until 2024 or 2025, so we’ll likely hear about additional solar storms in the coming months.

Coming into the peak of this active solar cycle, if one of the X-class solar flares were to directly hit our planet, then we could experience another “Carrington Event.” On Sept. 1-2, 1859, it was the most spectacular super solar flare in history and was witnessed by England’s foremost solar astronomer, Richard Carrington. He first noticed a huge group of sunspots Sept. 1 and then described “two patches of intensely bright and white light erupting from the sunspots” before they disappeared. On that September night, 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.

The auroras were also so bright that their glow awoke gold miners in the Rocky Mountains. Telegraph systems all over North American 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 grinded to a halt. Damage estimates from a Carrington-type event today would range between at least $500 million to over $2.5 trillion.

However, some scientists says that there is only a 10-15% chance of a solar superstorm hitting the Earth in the near future. Scientists will always be on the lookout for strong solar flares as there was a huge solar storm in July 2012 that narrowly missed our planet.

In terms of our local weather, our second winter season arrived and produced 9.5 inches of snow in February at Cliff’s station, compared to the normal of 11.9 inches. With the increased snowfall during the last week of the month and early March, our seasonal snowfall total in Coeur d’Alene is around 70 inches.

More moisture is expected this month, but as we get farther along in March, the long-range computer models are indicating that we could see more rain than snow. However, there’s still the chance of more snow in April across the Inland Northwest. In April of 2022, we had more than 10 inches of snow in Coeur d’Alene.

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Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com.