The sun is emerging from its deep sleep of the Solar Minimum. The increased sensitivity of human networks from satellites to power grids is starting to worry people who know what they’re talking about enough to cause them to have held a meeting on it.
The sun produces sunspots in a reasonably regular eleven year cycle between Solar maximums. The amplitude varies over time as you can see from the counts over the last couple of centuries (the numbers prior to 1850 are a bit patchy).
The number of sunspots correlates with the intensity of solar radiation over the period since 1979, when satellite measurements of absolute radiative flux became available.
These allow plumes of higher energy particles than usual to get expelled from deep inside of the sun’s fusion furnace. The effect on the earths climate is fortunately limited by a earths magnetic field. However as more charged particles strike the field, it depresses closer to the surface and more charged particles get down to the surface.
In the geological history however there have been periodic magnetic inversions where the north and south magnetic poles flip. As wikipedia says:-
Because the magnetic field has never been observed to reverse by humans with instrumentation, and the mechanism of field generation is not well understood, it is difficult to say what the characteristics of the magnetic field might be leading up to such a reversal. Some speculate that a greatly diminished magnetic field during a reversal period will expose the surface of the earth to a substantial and potentially damaging increase in cosmic radiation. However, Homo erectus and their ancestors certainly survived many previous reversals. There is no uncontested evidence that a magnetic field reversal has ever caused any biological extinctions. A possible explanation is that the solar wind may induce a sufficient magnetic field in the Earth’s ionosphere to shield the surface from energetic particles even in the absence of the Earth’s normal magnetic field.
Personally, while the biological systems may have evolved to handle the increased flux during the flip, I’d take a bet that our electrical and electronic technology hasn’t. They certainly have had problems with mere increases in the solar output from the sunspot cycle.
The leakage of extra charged particles into the atmosphere which have previously caused issues for our technological systems. Most notable in modern times was the power outage in the Quebec power grid in 1989 which was attributed to a solar storm. Modern electronics are far more susceptible to charged particles than electrical systems.
The following quote is from prior to the last Solar Maximum. It is worth repeating simply because it gives the strong impression of the rate of change of vulnerable devices world wide. For instance I understand that there are more cellphones in operation in NZ these days than there was in the US in 1981.
Why should we care that we are now once again living under ‘sunspot maximum’ conditions? After all, we have already weathered at least five of these solar activity cycles since the end of World War II. What is different about the world today is that we are substantially more reliant upon computers and telecommunications to run our commerce, and even our forms of entertainment and recreation. In 1981, at the peak of solar cycle 21, there were 15 communication satellites in orbit. Cellular phones were rare and there were 800,000 PCs sold in the U.S. with 300 hosts on the Internet. By the time the peak of solar cycle 22 came around in 1989, there were 102 communication satellites, and 3 million cellular phone users in the United States. With the new Intel 80486-based PCs, you could send e-mail to your choice of 300,000 host machines on the Internet.
As we arrive at the peak of the 23rd sunspot cycle in 2000-2001, however, we enter a very different world far more reliant on what used to be the luxuries of the Space Age. By 2000, 349 communication satellites orbit the Earth supporting over $60 billion of commerce. Over 100 million people have cellular phones, and Global Positioning System handsets are a commonplace for people working, or camping, ‘off road’. By 2003, 400 million people will routinely use wireless data transmission via satellite channels. There will be over 10 million Internet hosts with 38% of US households Internet-connected. To support all of this, not only will we need more satellites, but we will need more electricity flowing in our power grid which will have to work under loads unheard of in the past. As voters continue to elect not to build more power plants, blackouts and brownouts will become more common as power companies run out of temporary sources of power to buy during peak-load conditions during the summer and winter.
Yeah, I remember those crude old days (when things look better in 20:20 hindsight). The simple days when there were only millions of nodes on the Internet. There were still a lot of aircraft flying without fly by wire systems. When kids didn’t have a cellphone for each network. When the number of transistors in the CPU’s and GPU’s of a desktop computer or laptops were measured in million’s, much the same as those in cellphones are today.
Of course there is also the issue of where the extra energy pushed into the atmosphere and trapped with the increased greenhouse effect is going to wind up. The average temperatures around the world have been rising steadily during a period heading to the Solar Minimum as part of a long term trend. After all we have managed to keep the temperature averages rising over the last decade instead of doing their post Solar Maximum decrease. Now more energy is coming online…..