The Sun

Its production of magnetism, activity, and winds have great implications for our planet but hey, it’s a “variable star” and as such, conditions are known to change.  Unfortunately, scientists this week told reporters that the sun’s current space-weather cycle is the most anemic in over 100 years.  The situation is especially disconcerting given the sun should be at its solar maximum, the peak phase of its 11-year activity cycle.  Either the sun is settling into frighteningly low activity or we’re building up to one hell of a storm…

Richard Harrison, head of space physics at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, told the BBC.

“I’ve been a solar physicist for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this.  If you want to go back to see when the Sun was this inactive… you’ve got to go back about 100 years.”

Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics at the University of Reading, told the BBC there was a significant chance that the Sun could become increasingly quiet.

A similar situation occurred between 1645 and 1715, deemed the Maunder minimum, at which time sunspot activity became exceedingly rare and presumably triggered a Little Ice Age during which Europe and America experienced extremely cold winters with glaciers obliterating entire cities and some areas remaining frozen all year long.  The unusual 14th century event prompted crop failures and famines across much of Europe (but on a more positive note, produced the equally-unusually dense wood used in Stradivarius musical instruments).

Even more alarming, over 1,000 years earlier, scholars writing in Europe and Asia noted that in the year 536 and the years following the sun “dimmed” and the weather grew bitterly cold.  According to io9:

“They described conditions that reminded them of an eclipse, and claim that the sun remained “small,” with ice frosting up crops even in summer.  That year and the decade following were also times of great famine, plague and war — possibly connected to the devastating harvests that left many people hungry, angry, and wandering in search of more fertile lands.”

Unfortunately, scientists are unsure what is causing the low activity nor do they know what impact it will have on Earth.  Suffice to say, they are monitoring the situation and keeping a watchful eye on computer models.  Until more is known, all we can do is stay prepared.

Sources: Space.com, New Scientist, BBC
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