Forecasting solar activity and the weather in space

November 30, 2012
Forecasting solar activity and the weather in space
Credit: NASA SDO

The ability to forecast periods of intense solar activity may be improved after scientists compared cycles of solar magnetic activity (over the past 10,000 years as reconstructed from ice cores) with the action of the planets. The Sun determines the course of the planets, but it has been discovered that the planets may also exert an influence on the Sun. Their configurations appear to be responsible for long-term cycles of increased solar activity.

This is deemed important as our society becomes more dependent on technologies such as and - as well as power grids - which can be disabled by major solar eruptions. Scientists at Eawag and the ETH Zurich, in collaboration with colleagues from Australia and Spain, are continuing to study the configuration of the planets.

In their study, appearing in & Astrophysics, the lead authors Professor José Abreu and Dr Jürg Beer from Eawag Aquatic Research demonstrate why they find the idea of planetary influence so convincing. Tracing the 5 most prominent periodicities of back over the last 10,000 years, they observed that the peaks and troughs reappear with precisely the same periodicity even after being reduced or vanishing altogether for some time. Dr Beer concludes, 'Everything points to an external 'clock', and that can really only be the .'

Direct evidence of the number of sunspots (a measure of solar activity) has only been available for around 400 years - the era of telescopic observations. This evidence was obtained from polar ice cores (from Antarctica and Greenland) in which radionuclides (an atom with an unstable nucleus) produced by cosmic rays are stored. During the 's quiescent periods, more cosmic rays enter the atmosphere - with increased production of radionuclides - as the blocking effect of the solar magnetic field is weaker.

The authors of the study are still describing their conclusions cautiously as hypothesis. However, if their findings are confirmed, they could be of major importance in helping to understand and develop more realistic models of the Sun. In addition, they could also help to generate more reliable forecasts of the space climate or even space weather for longer space voyages.

Their study also looked into the effect of superflares - huge eruptions of solar plasma, hurling billions of tonnes of gas into the atmosphere and causing magnetic storms in space and on Earth.

Satellites, aircraft avionics, , radio signals and many other systems could be disrupted or destroyed by an event of this kind. But whether an improved understanding of solar magnetic activity will help to predict the frequency and intensity of such eruptions remains an open question. Dr Beer admits: 'Storm warnings are still a long way off. But the recent research takes us one step closer towards being able to give a better explanation of the longer-term space climate.'

Explore further: The Sun Loses its Spots

More information: Abreu, J.A., Beer, J., Ferriz-Mas, A., McCracken, K.G. and Steinhilber, F., 'Is there a planetary influence on solar activity?', Astronomy & Astrophysics, 2012, 548. dx.doi.org/10.1051/0004-6361/201219997

Related Stories

The Sun Loses its Spots

July 24, 2007

While sidewalks crackle in the summer heat, NASA scientists are keeping a close eye on the sun. It is almost spotless, a sign that the Sun may have reached solar minimum. Scientists are now watching for the first spot of ...

Study may explain the extended solar minimum

March 15, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- The recent solar minimum extended fifteen months longer than predicted, and a new study may explain why, and improve the predictions for future solar cycles.

Missing sunspots: Solar mystery solved

March 2, 2011

The Sun has been in the news a lot lately because it's beginning to send out more flares and solar storms. Its recent turmoil is particularly newsworthy because the Sun was very quiet for an unusually long time. Astronomers ...

ESA To Collaborate with NASA on Solar Science Mission

October 6, 2011

On October 4, 2011, the European Space Agency announced it's two next science missions, including Solar Orbiter, a spacecraft geared to study the powerful influence of the sun. Solar Orbiter will be an ESA-led mission, with ...

Recommended for you

Prawn Nebula: Cosmic recycling

September 2, 2015

Dominating this image is part of the nebula Gum 56, illuminated by the hot bright young stars that were born within it. For millions of years stars have been created out of the gas in this nebula, material which is later ...

Comet Hitchhiker would take tour of small bodies

September 2, 2015

Catching a ride from one solar system body to another isn't easy. You have to figure out how to land your spacecraft safely and then get it on its way to the next destination. The landing part is especially tricky for asteroids ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.