Feb 7, 2024
You know how Earth has a great, swirling pattern of ocean and air currents in constant movement around the globe? The sun has them, too. Only its nonstop currents are made of intensely hot, electromagnetic plasma. Once every 11 years or so, those currents flip the sun on its head, magnetically speaking.
Scientists believe that solar cycle is just about up. At some point this year, it’s likely that what has been the sun’s positively-charged “North Pole” will become its negatively charged “South.” Of course, the sun is a great ball of superheated gasses. That means it doesn’t have a “top” or “bottom.” But the solar flip-flop will have effects all the same. We'll be able to see some of them here on Earth.
“We are indeed seeing the sun more active than it’s been in (perhaps) something like 20 years,” Paul Charbonneau told Vox. He's a solar physicist in Montreal. “When the magnetic energy content of the sun is a lot larger, that’s when you tend to get more solar flares, more coronal mass ejections — more fun stuff.”
That “fun stuff” can shoot huge wads of solar matter our way. But they’re dispersed and cooled by the 93 million-mile journey through space. So they can't wreak any real havoc. Yet the magnetically-charged particles that do pass over earth can play games with satellites and power grids. They can disrupt communication. They can even cause brief blackouts.
Despite the pesky side effects, scientists are jazzed about the upcoming heliocentric headstand. They hope it will offer a chance to study solar storms and the mysterious workings of the inner sun, which we can only learn about by viewing the action on the sun’s surface.
GIF from GIPHY courtesy of @nasa.
Reflect: Why do you think it is important for scientists to explore and learn about the sun's magnetic activities? How might this knowledge benefit our understanding of the universe and the Earth's place in it?
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