It's the sort of news that makes one's eyes glaze over. "If our prediction is correct, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78," said Doug Biesecker of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center.
Yes, space has weather, in the form of solar radiation that varies with solar activity in the form of sunspots and solar flares. Biesecker heads an NOAA panel that keeps an eye on such things and released this latest report.
But this dry statistic has more significance for the earth and its climate than all of Al Gore's gloom and doom about tailpipe emissions and rising sea levels. Whether the warm-mongers like it or not, the sun rules earth's climate — always has and always will.
First noticed in the 1800s, solar activity runs in roughly 11-year cycles. Some are as short as nine years or as long as 14. The valleys are usually brief, a couple of years, but sometimes, for reasons not fully understood, they stretch out for decades.
In the 17th century, a 70-year period of little or no sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum spawned what has become known as the Little Ice Age, which extended from roughly the 16th century to the 19th.
Washington's famous winter at Valley Forge was part of that natural phenomenon. So was Napoleon's bitter retreat from Moscow. During the winter of 1779-1780, the Hudson River was solid ice for five weeks. Early settlers going West crossed a frozen Mississippi near present-day St. Louis in 1799.
Global warming, you may have noticed, seemingly stopped dead in its tracks in 1998. Solar activity is in a valley right now, the deepest of the past century. NOAA reports that in 2008 and 2009, the sun set Space Age records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind and low solar radiance. The sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare.
"The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way," says Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, NASA's lead representative on the panel. "In our professional careers, we've never seen anything like it. Solar minimum has lasted far beyond the date we predicted in 2007."
If the sun stays this quiet, is another Little Ice Age possible? NASA says it has detected a tiny uptick in solar radio emissions. This may be a sign of a return to normalcy, something similar to a dormant volcano returning to life.
"Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather," says Biesecker. "The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we're predicting for 2013."
That 1859 event electrified transmission cables, started fires in telegraph offices and produced Northern Lights bright enough to read a newspaper by. A recent report by by the National Academy of Sciences found that if such a storm occurred today, it could cause up to $2 trillion in damages to society's high-tech infrastructure.
The National Research Council has estimated that such a storm would play havoc with our power grid, resulting in "large-scale blackouts affecting more than 130 million people (in the U.S.) and (exposing) more than 350 major transformers to the risk of permanent damage."
NASA says this solar cycle will peak in 2013. The Mayan calendar identifies Dec. 12, 2012, as the end of the world as we know it. Seems to us we might better spend our money protecting our power grid and high-tech infrastructure against such a possibility rather than worrying about the emission standards for our cars.
That, and stock up on sunscreen.
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