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Are Solar Flares Easing Up?

Solar activity is difficult to predict. The sun itself has cyclic periods where activity ramps up or declines, and close monitoring of its activity lets astronomers warn public agencies if solar flare activity threatens technology on Earth. Unfortunately, research teams are providing differing long-term forecasts on solar activity.

Scientists at the U.S. National Solar Observatory have determined that the sunspot cycle is heading into a period of rest. Their reports are based on fading sunspots, a missing jet stream, and slower-than-usual activity near the sun’s poles. These findings were discovered late in the current sunspot cycle, and indicate that the next sunspot cycle (due to begin around 2019) would be a period of hibernation.

Hibernation periods mean that the sun will have a lessened effect on Earth and the other planets in our solar system. There will be little to no danger of sunspot activity or massive solar flares that could disrupt our technology. Researchers suggest that if the hibernation period is deep enough, it could potentially have a slight cooling effect on the Earth for some number of years.

This pronouncement has caused some debate over whether the cooling effect will cancel out any potential effects from global climate change. Global temperature averages rose by approximately 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit during the 20th century, and scientists estimate another rise of roughly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit during the 21st century. If the sun does provide an extended hibernation period, referred to as a Maunder Minimum, it could lower global temperatures by an average of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Some researchers have suggested that this could lead to a mini-Ice Age; however, as global temperatures have already risen above recorded averages, it’s highly unlikely that a hibernation period could lead to such a drastic cooling event.

In contrast to these findings, other researchers have declared that 2013 will provide a spike in solar activity, potentially culminating with a massive solar flare powerful enough to knock out communications on Earth. Their findings show that sunspot activity, currently in a lull, is increasing and heading toward a maximum.

Sunspots and solar flares are powered by the sun’s magnetic field. Fluctuations and magnetic field flare-ups cause coronal ejections and mass ejections. These flares send plasma streaming out into space. This sounds dangerous, but is only potentially dangerous if the flare shoots toward our planet. Severe solar flares and storms can disrupt global communications and cause problems with the grid.

This dire warning has been discounted by many other scientists. They state that the reduction in sunspot activity is a clear indicator that the cycle is winding down, and that fears of a massive flare in 2013 are unwarranted. Although they argue that a massive flare is unlikely, they have provided some data on past flares to demonstrate that even a large flare would have minimal impact on the world.

After reviewing case studies on historical solar flare activity, this team of researchers advised that at worst, only small communications or electricity interruptions would occur if a massive flare erupted toward Earth. Although the interruptions may be minor, the team stated that the power grid should be outfitted with monitoring equipment to help address any potential disruptions caused by solar flare activity. The equipment, referred to as residual current devices (RCDs), act as trip switches on electricity transmission lines. RCDs break the connection when there’s a sudden increase in voltage. This would cause a temporary disruption in power, but the transformers would be protected from surges. The devices are used in domestic wiring systems and could be thought of as surge protectors for power lines.

Devices such as these are inexpensive, practical, and easy to install; for example, it would cost approximately $200-300 million U.S. to outfit the entire UK power grid. The U.S. grid is more extensive and would require greater funding, but it would be worthwhile to protect each and every power grid from solar flare activity. Temporary power disruptions are preferable to extensive brownouts or blackouts affecting hundreds of thousands of customers (as we’re seeing right now with the extensive burden we’re putting on the electrical grid with the current heat wave we’re experiencing).

At this time, the National Weather Service’s space page shows no solar storm or sunspot activity. We’ll maintain a watch on solar flare forecasts and provide as much warning as possible for any periods of heightened solar activity. Plan ahead for these events: stock up on batteries, have an emergency food and water supply, keep an alternative fuel stove (such as the Crisis Cooker), and have on hand any other supplies you deem necessary during a blackout. Telephone disruptions are more difficult to deal with under these conditions, but bear in mind that cell phones will be at higher risk for disruption than landlines. Having a landline won’t guarantee that you’ll be able to make phone calls, but it will be your best option in the event of a disruptive solar flare.

Another option for communications in the event of telephone disruptions because of solar activity is a HAM radio. We were privileged to have David Hill of the Preparedness Radio Network write several articles for us this past December on HAM radios, and it’s well worth your while to take a few moments to read these articles. The first article details how to get started in HAM radio, and the second article details different options for communicating off-grid.

You’ll also want to read our articles on Faraday cages, devices that can be used to protect sensitive electronic equipment. This week’s newsletter also has an article on Faraday cages. All in all, the best thing to do is pray for the best but prepare for the worst. That way you’re ready for any eventuality.

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