The sun’s magnetic poles reverse every eleven years as it makes a full solar cycle. A solar maximum is when the most solar activity from the sun occurs, and it is followed by a solar minimum. During the maximum, Earth is affected by sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections.
The sun has something that resembles a conveyor belt that carries gasses around in a loop from the sun’s equator to its poles and back. This helps control the weather on the sun and it also controls the sunspot cycle.
A sunspot is a dark spot on the surface of the sun that decays and leaves behind weak magnetic fields. When the top of the conveyor belt goes along the surface of the sun, it sweeps up the old, dead sunspots. These are dragged down and reincarnated then they float back to the surface.
It takes about forty years for the belt to make a loop. However, a fast pace of thirty years means that there are more magnetic fields being swept up, and the sunspot cycle will be more intense. The magnetic fields swept up from 1986-1996 should be big sunspots in 2012.
The most active Solar Cycle was number nineteen, where there were 201 sunspots at its peak in 1957.It is predicted that 2012 will be the most intense solar maximum in over fifty years.
Solar storms are solar flares and coronal mass ejections. Just what are these?
Solar flares are big bursts of magnetic energy that flare out from the sun. They occur frequently during the solar maximum. Solar flares push radiation, electrons, protons, and ions toward Earth at almost the speed of light. Earth has something called a magnetosphere, and it is supposed to act as a shield around Earth. This magnetosphere will keep most solar particles away, but our magnetosphere is weakening. This means that its ability to protect Earth from these particles is reduced.
Solar flares are often followed by a coronal mass ejection (CME). These emit gas and plasma into the solar wind that hurtle toward Earth. The radiation from the sun can reach Earth within eight minutes, and the energy particles arrive around an hour later. The actual CME doesn’t get here for one to four days after that. However, the ACE Satellite gives advance warning of geomagnetic storms, so scientists don’t believe there is any danger.
There are scientists who posit that at least one large solar storm happens every decade, and cause only minor disruptions. Large solar storms were recorded in 1859. They did some damage to telegraph wires, and possibly caused fires. It appears there were also solar storms in 2003, but they didn’t do anything noticeable to the Earth.
A solar storm today can knock out power grids and satellites, so our cell phones, GPS and other electronic systems could quit working. It may also pull satellites down and cause them to crash into Earth. In turn, it could take months to repair these issues, and there could be social and economic disruptions and chaos. There are scientists working to create electronics that are “solar storm proof”, but until that time, there is always a risk of losing our electronics.
Some believe the predicted solar flares of 2012 will not be as mild as those of 2003. The change in the sun’s magnetic fields will produce huge solar flares that will affect the Earth’s polarity. This means that Earth’s magnetic field will reverse all at once and result in massive earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.
NASA doesn’t see any increased risk to Earth because of solar storms in 2012. They believe that the next solar maximum will occur after December 21, 2012, and will be an average solar cycle.