Next Few Years Could be Hard to Beat

The sun is on fire these days. Ahead of an expected spike in solar activity, it is hurling massive blobs of hot plasma toward Earth. And while this may disrupt civilization, the flipside is that it will likely bring awesome aurora.

According to Don Hampton of the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, approximately every 11 years our sun’s magnetic poles switch. South becomes north, and vice versa. The years preceding this are called the solar maximum. Hampton expects the next maximum to peak in 2025 or 2026.

As a solar maximum approaches, violent events unfold across the sun’s surface—including fierce solar winds, collapsing filaments of electrified gas, distortions in the sun’s magnetic field, and massive ejections of plasma—which send geomagnetic storms hurtling toward Earth.

In space, it can damage satellites and threaten astronaut safety. On Earth, it can disrupt communications, aircraft routes, and even the electrical grid. Hampton says the risk of disruption becomes greater as we rely more on satellites and interconnected power grids. 

But these geomagnetic events also increase auroral activity by agitating nitrogen, oxygen, and other molecules near our planet’s poles, causing them to emit colorful photons of light. 

Hampton says a powerful geomagnetic storm in 1859 disabled telegraph equipment around the globe and triggered exceptionally bright aurora as far south as the Caribbean. More recent geomagnetic storms occurred in 1989, when a billion-ton gas plume from the sun knocked out power across Quebec, and in 2003, when power failed across the northeastern U.S. and aurora was visible in Florida. Last February, a relatively minor solar storm knocked 40 SpaceX satellites used for internet communication out of the sky.

Hampton says Alaskans have long known about geomagnetic disturbances and that understanding them is a purpose for the Geophysical Institute. His team uses rockets and ground-based monitors to study the aurora. Hampton cites anodes buried along the trans-Alaska pipeline as an example of how Alaskan infrastructure is protected from geomagnetic activity.


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