The year 2008 earned what NASA called the Sun’s blankest year of the space age; it hasn’t been this quiet since the year of 1913. No solar flares. However, sunspot counts for 2009 have dropped even lower. “We’re experiencing a very deep solar minimum,” says solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center.
NASA 2012 predictions, on the other hand, are radically effected. Solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center (NSSTC) explains that currently the magnetic “belts” of the sun are turning very fast which means that lots of magnetic fields are being swept up, and that a future sunspot cycle is going to be intense. Solar flare and sunspot activity can be predicted even earlier, and Hathaway stated “The belt was turning fast in 1986-1996. Old magnetic fields swept up then should re-appear as big sunspots in 2010-2011.”
Like most experts in the field, Hathaway agrees that the next solar maximum should be a doozy. But he disagrees with one point — Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) forecast Solar Max at 2012. Hathaway believes it will arrive sooner, in 2010 or 2011.
There was a minor solar flare in the fall of 2005 that resulted in all GPS signals on one side of the Earth being noticeably degraded and sensitive electronic equipment on land malfunctioning . When those results are scaled up to the power of the super solar flares expected on or before 2012, researchers say the world would be set back many, many years as far as technology is concerned. Earth’s atmosphere protects us and our equipment from regular solar flares, but can be easily penetrated by a more powerful one. Everything from our modern home electronics to the power grid are susceptible, even shielded military equipment.
The problem is, such intense solar activity have never been experienced in our modern, electronic age. An event like the one on September 1–2, 1859 (the largest recorded geomagnetic storm), which caused the failure of telegraph systems all over Europe and North America and created auroras visible in the Caribbean, would be utterly devastating today. The telegraph systems used then were wholly primitive compared to the microelectronics of today that are found in everything from wrist watches and home computers and space satellites.
Solar Storm Warning
March 10, 2006: It's official: Solar minimum has arrived. Sunspots have all but vanished. Solar flares are nonexistent. The sun is utterly quiet.
Like the quiet before a storm.
This week researchers announced that a storm is coming--the most intense solar maximum in fifty years. The prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). "The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one," she says. If correct, the years ahead could produce a burst of solar activity second only to the historic Solar Max of 1958.
That was a solar maximum. The Space Age was just beginning: Sputnik was launched in Oct. 1957 and Explorer 1 (the first US satellite) in Jan. 1958. In 1958 you couldn't tell that a solar storm was underway by looking at the bars on your cell phone; cell phones didn't exist. Even so, people knew something big was happening when Northern Lights were sighted three times in Mexico. A similar maximum now would be noticed by its effect on cell phones, GPS, weather satellites and many other modern technologies.
Right: Intense auroras over Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1958.
Dikpati's prediction is unprecedented. In nearly-two centuries since the 11-year sunspot cycle was discovered, scientists have struggled to predict the size of future maxima—and failed. Solar maxima can be intense, as in 1958, or barely detectable, as in 1805, obeying no obvious pattern.
The key to the mystery, Dikpati realized years ago, is a conveyor belt on the sun.
We have something similar here on Earth—the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt, popularized in the sci-fi movie The Day After Tomorrow. It is a network of currents that carry water and heat from ocean to ocean--see the diagram below. In the movie, the Conveyor Belt stopped and threw the world's weather into chaos.
Above: Earth's "Great Ocean Conveyor Belt." [More]
The sun's conveyor belt is a current, not of water, but of electrically-conducting gas. It flows in a loop from the sun's equator to the poles and back again. Just as the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt controls weather on Earth, this solar conveyor belt controls weather on the sun. Specifically, it controls the sunspot cycle.
Solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center (NSSTC) explains: "First, remember what sunspots are--tangled knots of magnetism generated by the sun's inner dynamo. A typical sunspot exists for just a few weeks. Then it decays, leaving behind a 'corpse' of weak magnetic fields."
Enter the conveyor belt.
"The top of the conveyor belt skims the surface of the sun, sweeping up the magnetic fields of old, dead sunspots. The 'corpses' are dragged down at the poles to a depth of 200,000 km where the sun's magnetic dynamo can amplify them. Once the corpses (magnetic knots) are reincarnated (amplified), they become buoyant and float back to the surface." Presto—new sunspots!
Right: The sun's "great conveyor belt."
All this happens with massive slowness. "It takes about 40 years for the belt to complete one loop," says Hathaway. The speed varies "anywhere from a 50-year pace (slow) to a 30-year pace (fast)."
When the belt is turning "fast," it means that lots of magnetic fields are being swept up, and that a future sunspot cycle is going to be intense. This is a basis for forecasting: "The belt was turning fast in 1986-1996," says Hathaway. "Old magnetic fields swept up then should re-appear as big sunspots in 2010-2011."
Like most experts in the field, Hathaway has confidence in the conveyor belt model and agrees with Dikpati that the next solar maximum should be a doozy. But he disagrees with one point. Dikpati's forecast puts Solar Max at 2012. Hathaway believes it will arrive sooner, in 2010 or 2011.
"History shows that big sunspot cycles 'ramp up' faster than small ones," he says. "I expect to see the first sunspots of the next cycle appear in late 2006 or 2007—and Solar Max to be underway by 2010 or 2011."
Who's right? Time will tell. Either way, a storm is coming.
Author: Dr. Tony Phillips | Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA
2012: Beginning of the End or Why the World Won't End?
Much like Y2K, 2012 has been analyzed and the science of the end of the Earth thoroughly studied. Contrary to some of the common beliefs out there, the science behind the end of the world quickly unravels when pinned down to the 2012 timeline. Below, NASA Scientists answer several questions that we're frequently asked regarding 2012.
Question (Q): Are there any threats to the Earth in 2012? Many Internet websites say the world will end in December 2012.
Answer (A): Nothing bad will happen to the Earth in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.
Q: What is the origin of the prediction that the world will end in 2012?
A: The story started with claims that Nibiru, a supposed planet discovered by the Sumerians, is headed toward Earth. This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was moved forward to December 2012. Then these two fables were linked to the end of one of the cycles in the ancient Mayan calendar at the winter solstice in 2012 -- hence the predicted doomsday date of December 21, 2012.
Q: Does the Mayan calendar end in December 2012?
A: Just as the calendar you have on your kitchen wall does not cease to exist after December 31, the Mayan calendar does not cease to exist on December 21, 2012. This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then -- just as your calendar begins again on January 1 -- another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.
Q: Could phenomena occur where planets align in a way that impacts Earth?
A: There are no planetary alignments in the next few decades, Earth will not cross the galactic plane in 2012, and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible. Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy but that is an annual event of no consequence.
"There apparently is a great deal of interest in celestial bodies, and their locations and trajectories at the end of the calendar year 2012. Now, I for one love a good book or movie as much as the next guy. But the stuff flying around through cyberspace, TV and the movies is not based on science. There is even a fake NASA news release out there..."
- Don Yeomans, NASA senior research scientist Q: Is there a planet or brown dwarf called Nibiru or Planet X or Eris that is approaching the Earth and threatening our planet with widespread destruction?
A: Nibiru and other stories about wayward planets are an Internet hoax. There is no factual basis for these claims. If Nibiru or Planet X were real and headed for an encounter with the Earth in 2012, astronomers would have been tracking it for at least the past decade, and it would be visible by now to the naked eye. Obviously, it does not exist. Eris is real, but it is a dwarf planet similar to Pluto that will remain in the outer solar system; the closest it can come to Earth is about 4 billion miles.
Q: What is the polar shift theory? Is it true that the earth’s crust does a 180-degree rotation around the core in a matter of days if not hours?
A: A reversal in the rotation of Earth is impossible. There are slow movements of the continents (for example Antarctica was near the equator hundreds of millions of years ago), but that is irrelevant to claims of reversal of the rotational poles. However, many of the disaster websites pull a bait-and-shift to fool people. They claim a relationship between the rotation and the magnetic polarity of Earth, which does change irregularly, with a magnetic reversal taking place every 400,000 years on average. As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal doesn’t cause any harm to life on Earth. A magnetic reversal is very unlikely to happen in the next few millennia, anyway.
Earth, as seen in the Blue Marble: Next Generation collection of images, showing the color of the planet's surface in high resolution. This image shows South America from September 2004. Q: Is the Earth in danger of being hit by a meteor in 2012?
A: The Earth has always been subject to impacts by comets and asteroids, although big hits are very rare. The last big impact was 65 million years ago, and that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today NASA astronomers are carrying out a survey called the Spaceguard Survey to find any large near-Earth asteroids long before they hit. We have already determined that there are no threatening asteroids as large as the one that killed the dinosaurs. All this work is done openly with the discoveries posted every day on the NASA NEO Program Office website, so you can see for yourself that nothing is predicted to hit in 2012.
Q: How do NASA scientists feel about claims of pending doomsday?
A: For any claims of disaster or dramatic changes in 2012, where is the science? Where is the evidence? There is none, and for all the fictional assertions, whether they are made in books, movies, documentaries or over the Internet, we cannot change that simple fact. There is no credible evidence for any of the assertions made in support of unusual events taking place in December 2012.
Q: Is there a danger from giant solar storms predicted for 2012?
A: Solar activity has a regular cycle, with peaks approximately every 11 years. Near these activity peaks, solar flares can cause some interruption of satellite communications, although engineers are learning how to build electronics that are protected against most solar storms. But there is no special risk associated with 2012. The next solar maximum will occur in the 2012-2014 time frame and is predicted to be an average solar cycle, no different than previous cycles throughout history.