The Sun's Sneaky Variability

Oct 28, 2009 Dr. Tony Phillips
The active sun photographed at EUV wavelengths by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory in the year 2000.

Every 11 years, the sun undergoes a furious upheaval. Dark sunspots burst forth from beneath the sun's surface. Explosions as powerful as a billion atomic bombs spark intense flares of high-energy radiation. Clouds of gas big enough to swallow planets break away from the sun and billow into space. It's a flamboyant display of stellar power.

So why can't we see any of it?

Almost none of the drama of is visible to the human eye. Look at the sun in the noontime sky and—ho-hum—it's the same old bland ball of bright light.

"The problem is, human eyes are tuned to the wrong wavelength," explains Tom Woods, a solar physicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. "If you want to get a good look at , you need to look in the EUV."

EUV is short for "," a high-energy form of with wavelengths between 1 and 120 nanometers. EUV photons are much more energetic and dangerous than the ordinary UV rays that cause sunburns. Fortunately for humans, Earth's atmosphere blocks solar EUV; otherwise a day at the beach could be fatal.

When the sun is active, intense solar EUV emissions can rise and fall by factors of thousands in just a matter of minutes. These surges heat Earth's , puffing it up and increasing the drag on satellites. EUV photons also break apart atoms and molecules, creating a layer of ions in the upper atmosphere that can severely disturb .

Space-age measurements of the total solar irradiance or "TSI". TSI is the sun's brightness summed across all the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum--visible light and EUV included. TSI goes up and down with the 11 year solar cycle. Credit: C. Fröhlich.

To monitor these energetic photons, NASA is going to launch a sensor named "EVE," short for EUV Variability Experiment, onboard the Solar Dynamics Observatory as early as this winter.

"EVE gives us the highest time resolution (10 sec) and the highest spectral resolution (< 0.1 nm) that we've ever had for measuring the sun, and we'll have it 24/7," says Woods, the lead scientist for EVE. "This is a huge improvement over past missions."

Although EVE is designed to study solar activity, its first order of business is to study solar inactivity. SDO is going to launch during the deepest in almost 100 years. , flares and CMEs are at low ebb. That's okay with Woods. He considers solar minimum just as interesting as solar maximum.

"Solar minimum is a quiet time when we can establish a baseline for evaluating long-term trends," he explains. "All stars are variable at some level, and the sun is no exception. We want to compare the sun's brightness now to its brightness during previous minima and ask ourselves, is the sun getting brighter or dimmer?"

Lately, the answer seems to be dimmer. Measurements by a variety of spacecraft indicate a 12-year lessening of the sun's "irradiance" by about 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at EUV wavelengths. These results, which compare the solar minimum of 2008-09 to the previous minimum of 1996, are still very preliminary. EVE will improve confidence in the trend by pinning down the EUV spectrum with unprecedented accuracy.

The sun's intrinsic variability and its potential for future changes are not fully understood—hence the need for EVE. "The EUV portion of the sun's spectrum is what changes most during a solar cycle," says Woods, "and that is the part of the spectrum we will be observing."

Woods gazes out his office window at the Colorado . It looks the same as usual. EVE, he knows, will have a different story to tell.

Source: Dr. Tony Phillips, Science@NASA

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User comments : 5

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omatumr
4 / 5 (5) Oct 28, 2009
Thank you, thank you, NASA, for giving attention to Earth's heat source!

Yes, of course, the Sun is a variable star.

The Sun's influence on Earth's climate does not just depend on the amount of irradiation coming from the photosphere.

Earth literally moves through the outer layer of the Sun - the heliosphere.

The Sun and the Earth are intimately connected, as the nucleus of an atom is intimately connected to the electron that orbits it.

Thanks again NASA for attention to Earth's heat source.

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel, author of
"Earth's Heat Source -the Sun"
GrayMouser
5 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2009
Lately, the answer seems to be dimmer. Measurements by a variety of spacecraft indicate a 12-year lessening of the sun's "irradiance" by about 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at EUV wavelengths.

How much of the EUV radiation is reflected back in to space? The rest is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere (or ground if it reaches there) and enters the heat budget. A 6% change is massive.
jselin
1 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2009
Lately, the answer seems to be dimmer. Measurements by a variety of spacecraft indicate a 12-year lessening of the sun's "irradiance" by about 0.02% at visible wavelengths and 6% at EUV wavelengths.

How much of the EUV radiation is reflected back in to space? The rest is absorbed by the Earth's atmosphere (or ground if it reaches there) and enters the heat budget. A 6% change is massive.

Depends if its 6% total irradiance or 6% in that spectral band. The author isn't clear but it sounds like the latter.
defunctdiety
5 / 5 (2) Oct 29, 2009
6% in that spectral band

I think it is pretty clear, it says 6% of the EUV spectrum. Not much of the EUV reaches the ground, otherwise we'd have a sterile planet.

What the article seems to purposely avoid is addressing how the sun's variability affects the earth's insolation and net irradiance (the entire EM spectrum), and therefore the average global temp.
deatopmg
1 / 5 (1) Oct 29, 2009
6% in that spectral band

I think it is pretty clear, it says 6% of the EUV spectrum. Not much of the EUV reaches the ground, otherwise we'd have a sterile planet.

What the article seems to purposely avoid is addressing how the sun's variability affects the earth's insolation and net irradiance (the entire EM spectrum), and therefore the average global temp.


Woods et al have to be very careful what they say and how they say it if they want to keep their funding because another, more politically powerful, NASA group is a, if not the, major instigator of AGW hysteria.

This new satellite will give even better information about solar energy output vs. time so that the clear relationship between solar activity and the planet's temperature can be further refined.

Note that the solar output graph included w/ the article ends in early 2007 when a new cycle was predicted to start. The extremely low output continues today with no end in sight, 2.5 yrs later.

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