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What is the Solar Cycle?

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By: burgundy bug

A large sunspot was the source of a powerful solar flare (an X 9.3) and a coronal mass ejection (Sept. 6, 2017). The flare was the largest solar flare of the last decade.
Photo courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory

Source: Major Solar Flare | NASA Images

So, you’ve heard of the water cycle, the menstrual cycle, bicycles… But have you heard of the solar cycle?

The sun — a “huge ball of electrically-charged gases” — has a magnetic field that completely flips roughly every eleven years, according to NASA.

This affects the activity taking place on the surface of the sun, either causing more or fewer sunspots to appear. Researchers use the number of sunspots to track the solar cycle and create forecasts for the future.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have joined forces to host a teleconference where they’ll discuss predictions about the upcoming solar cycle tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. (EDT).

Wait, Why Does the Solar Cycle Matter Anyways?

“The middle of the solar cycle is the solar maximum, or when the Sun has the most sunspots. As the cycle ends, it fades back to the solar minimum and then a new cycle begins.”


As you might’ve guessed, an increase in solar activity does more than just create a few extra sunspots — the whole solar system feels its impact.

The “immense explosions of light, energy, and solar radiation” during the middle of the solar cycle can shorten the lifespan of Earth’s satellites, which affects communication systems like GPS and radio.

These conditions also leave astronauts working in space vulnerable to intense levels of radiation.

“Some cycles have maximums with lots of sunspots and activity,” NASA explains. “Other cycles can have very few sunspots and little activity.”

By tracking the solar cycles, we’re able to take precautionary measures to protect our astronauts and communication systems.

Does the Solar Cycle Affect Global Warming?

Nah, not really.

“Scientists agree that the solar cycle and its associated short-term changes in irradiance cannot be the main force driving the changes in Earth’s climate we are currently seeing,” NASA says. “For one thing, the Sun’s energy output only changes by up to 0.15 percent over the course of the cycle, less than what would be needed to force the change in climate that we see.”

Furthermore, scientists have yet to find any evidence that the 11-year cycle parallels any changes in Earth’s surface temperature or precipitation patterns.

HOWEVER, there’s a possibility that long-term trends in the solar cycle could affect Earth’s climate — in the North Atlantic region, at least. The effects would be incredibly minimal, though.

If anything, the patterns of the solar cycle over the last 35-years would suggest Earth is slightly cooler. But we all know that isn’t the case.

What Solar Cycle Are We in Now?

We’ve just begun Cycle 25, according to an NOAA report from last year. This means we’re in a solar minimum, a period in which the sun is least active.

So far, it’s predicted this cycle will have a slow start and peak some time between 2023 to 2026. The last cycle reached its peak in April 2014 with an average of 82 sunspots.

“The Sun’s Northern Hemisphere led the sunspot cycle, peaking over two years ahead of the Southern Hemisphere sunspot peak [in Cycle 24],” the NOAA explains.

To learn more about the forecast for Cycle 25, tune in to NASA and the NOAA’s teleconference audio tomorrow afternoon.

After the teleconference, there will be a NASA Science Live episode broadcast at 3 p.m. and a Reddit AMA at 4 p.m. where you can ask solar experts all of your burning questions.

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burgundy bug


A cynical optimist and mad scientist undercover, burgundy bug is the editor, graphic designer, webmaster, social media manager, and primary photographer for The Burgundy Zine. Entangled in a web of curiosity, burgundy bug’s work embodies a wide variety of topics including: neuroscience, psychology, ecology, biology, cannabis, reviews, fashion, entertainment, and politics. You can learn more about working with burgundy bug by visiting her portfolio website: burgundybug.com

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