Ep. 703: Solar Maximum of Doom? Maybe

Solar cycle 25 is shaping up to be a doozy, with plenty of flares and coronal mass ejections blasting off the Sun. As the solar activity continues to rise, how are things shaping up?

Show Notes | Transcript

Show Notes

Hello Solar Cycle 25 (National Weather Service)

The Solar Cycle (NOAA)

What is a CanSat? (ESA)


What is a Lagrange Point? (NASA)

Solar Flares Disrupted Radio Communications During September 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Relief Effort (AGU)

What was the Carrington Event, and why does it matter? (EarthSky)

The Carrington Event of 1859 Disrupted Telegraph Lines. A “Miyake Event” Would Be Far Worse (JSTOR Daily)

Researchers identify largest ever solar storm in tree rings  (University of Leeds)

In 1872, a Solar Storm Hit the Earth Generating Auroras from the Tropics to the Poles (Universe Today)

The Great Storm of May 1921: An Exemplar of a Dangerous Space Weather Event (Space Weather)

Blue Lagoon Iceland Resort & Spa


Back to Top


Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast episode 703: The Solar Max of Doom? Maybe. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos where we help you understand not only what we know but how we know what we know. I’m Fraser Cain, the publisher of Universe Today. With me as always is Dr Pamela Gay, a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of Cosmoquest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?

Dr Pamela Gay: I am doing well. I am excited that we’re actually taking two weeks off because of Christmas Day and New Year’s Day following on Mondays, and I apologize to the audience that we won’t be with you, but my house is about to get very clean.

Fraser: Oh, good. Yeah, and my forest is about to get very clean. We were talking about this beforehand that you know we have different ways of utilizing our free time, and for me, I am going to just continue the defense against the deer who clearly were in the garden while I was gone.

Pamela: I need to harden the defenses against the four-legged things that get into our walls and have recently gotten out of the walls into the house.

Fraser: Okay. Solar cycle 25 is shaping up to be a doozy with plenty of flares and coronal mass ejections blasting off the Sun as the solar activity continues to rise. How are things shaping up? So how is solar cycle 25 matching your expectations?

Pamela: It is actually… so leading up to it, there were predictions that it was either going to be weaker than the last one which was pretty weak or it was going to be a whole lot stronger than the last one. And it turns out in reality it is stronger than the last one, and it’s looking kind of normal, but we are in a new and interesting place with this particular so solar cycle. So 11 years ago – so we’re talking 2012 – there weren’t that many CanSats. Like it wasn’t a thing, yet. People weren’t doing small sats. Starlink didn’t exist until 2019, and so this is the first solar max since we started trying to fill low earth orbit.

Fraser: Right, and so we’re learning quickly what impact… so, well, I guess like what influence does the Sun have on low earth orbit, on the Sun, on its atmosphere, on the ionosphere?

Pamela: Yeah. So to back all the way up because I don’t think we’ve explained what solar max is in episodes and years and years and episodes.

Fraser: Okay.

Pamela: So our Sun has a magnetic field – a very powerful one that influences the entire solar system, and it periodically inverts north to south / south to north in how its magnetic field is set up. And in the middle of this process, all chaos breaks loose. Magnetic field lines puncture through the surface all over the place creating visible sunspots. And periodically, these magnetic field loops, which are literally loops filled with plasma, snap and send material our way. And there are other things that happen as well – coronal mass ejections – and all of this activity that sends high energy particles streaming towards Earth very rapidly are most likely to occur during solar maximum. And when this wave of charged particles, this front of charged particles, hits our atmosphere, it imparts energy onto the atmosphere causing it to expand out and increase the altitude at which satellites experience significant amounts of drag. It also causes amazing aurora, so there’s this “I want to see the aurora”. There’s also these charged particles being incident on the moon and on Mars allow us to do really cool science experiments. When we have wussy solar max, we don’t get as good a data. So we’re in this sad position of for the not terrestrial science we want big solar max; for the aurora that are just amazing to see, we want big solar max; but unless you want the Kessler Syndrome, you probably don’t want it for low earth orbit.

Fraser: Right, so if you want to see beautiful auroras, you want solar max.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: If you want to learn some important new things about the Sun at its extreme, you want a powerful solar max; but if you care at all about your nation’s infrastructure, your satellite systems then you probably don’t want solar max, and unfortunately, we don’t really have any kind of control over this. So when did – and you know I mentioned in my introduction that we’re in solar cycle 25…

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: So how long does this process take? How long is a cycle?

Pamela: So to go from one flip to all the way through – so north ends up as south, south ends up as north – takes 11 years. To do all the way back to north is the north pole of the Sun is realigned back to where it started is 22 years. So we we have the complete cycle is 22 years, but everyone talks about the 11-year solar cycle because maximum to maximum, minimum to minimum, is really what has the greatest influence on the Earth. And for the longest time it was really all we could observe because we’re just looking at the sunspots, and we didn’t have the capacity to measure the magnetic field alignment of the Sun in the 1600s when they started observing sunspots.

Fraser: Right right right. And so like we get this solar max every 11 years, but the solar max is whether the Sun is configured with the poles flipped, so sometimes the north pole is at the top, and then other times I guess the magnetic poles flip, and that takes 11 years each time. And so we get a solar maximum every 11 years, but the full configuration – and then we get the solar minimum in the in-between times.

Pamela: Right. Right.

Fraser: Yeah. And so I guess, you know, you mentioned sort of – you provided like a laundry list of things that can happen, so let’s kind of like break these down one by one here. So what… if you were to sort of describe… you know you described like the puffiness of the atmosphere, you described the amount of auroras, you described like the the effect of the magnetosphere…

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: …the effect on satellites and the ground-based electrical infrastructure. So what are the different… like when this… what does… what is the Sun doing that is then causing an effect on Earth?

Pamela: So during solar flares and coronal mass ejections, the sun is releasing a plume – for lack of a better word – of high energy particles. One of the reasons we like to put solar observers out at the Lagrange Point between the Earth and the Sun is we first see the light of these events. And if it’s on the edge of the Sun, we know we are completely safe. If one of these things happens, and it’s pointed our way, we need to know, first of all, is it really pointed our way or is it going to miss us because it’s just slightly the angles wrong? And two, just how fast are all those particles moving? And since a satellite between us and the Sun can go, “Okay, light moving at the speed of light reached me at this time; it will reach Earth at this time. Okay, so the particles associated with that light reached me a few minutes… a few hours later; therefore, I now know how fast these particles are coming.” And we can start to put the power grid that is facing towards the Sun for that part of the planet that’s going to get hit into safe mode; we can start putting satellites into safe mode.

Fraser: Does anybody really do that, though?

Pamela: Yeah, they actually do.

Fraser: Okay, okay.

Pamela: Yeah, there’s alerts that go out, and with the power grid this is particularly important because we often, especially in the summer and the coldest parts of winter, will run the U.S. power grid – and the Canadians are guilty of this, too – very close to maximum capacity. And wires can only carry so much electricity, and they heat up, they sag, and they will eventually break if you overload them. Now there’s the power that’s in the power lines because it is getting put into the power lines by the power grid; now, if you walk up to any old wire anywhere, and you shake a magnet next to it – changing the magnetic field – you can generate an electric field. It is far more effective to couple this with a bicycle, but when you see these machines that are using bicycles to produce electricity, it’s because there’s moving magnets next to wires, and you’re effectively moving the magnets to generate the electricity. When charged particles, which are essentially little tiny magnets, interact with the Earth’s magnetic field, which is also essentially electric field… it’s all the same thing, folks… all of these movements generate their own magnetic field like you standing there shaking a magnet but at a much larger scale. And this will generate additional power in the power lines, and Quebec experienced this in the 80s and took out a large swath of the American Northeast and the Canadian Southeast. Do you refer to it as the Canadian Southeast?

Fraser: No, we refer to it as Quebec.

Pamela: Okay. [laughter]

Fraser: Yeah, I mean everything’s south in Canada. Like we all live along the border so…

Pamela: All right. Fair.

Fraser: …very few people live anywhere else, so there’s the like… you guys call it the Pacific Northwest. and we just call it the West.

Pamela: Right.

Fraser: So this idea that you’ve got your electrical cables, and you are hitting it with a very powerful magnet, essentially charged particles delivered by the Sun…

Pamela: Yes, a moving magnet.

Fraser: Yes, charged particles delivered by the Sun, and you’re getting these, and you know the most famous example of this, of course, is the Carrington Event back in the 1800s where telegraph poles caught on fire because you had too much charge moving through these wires. It wasn’t prepared for that at all. And so, you know they had no insulationm and so these things caught on fire, and as you said in Quebec in various times you get the situation where the wires run through, the transformers blow, the power grid goes down, everything is interconnected…

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: …and so it’s a very bad day especially during the Canadian winter during an ice storm when this happened, so it was a very very bad day in Canada. And just a hint of what’s possible. The other thing is really interesting, and we actually had this – the most powerful solar flare in recent, during this cycle, just happened on Friday, the Friday before we’re recording this. And it caused a radio blackout on the hemisphere of Earth, in certain wavelengths, that are pointed at. And so this is devastating for Air Traffic Control Systems, things like that, they had trouble communicating with airplanes; people weren’t able to send radio transmissions; they had to wait a couple hours before they could resume radio transmissions, and often during the most powerful flares, this is a thing that happens.

Pamela: It’s really wild because we we don’t talk about the radio blackouts. Back when Hurricane Maria was taking out Puerto Rico a number of years ago, there was a radio blackout associated with solar activity, and so, well, most of us are actually connected through wires to one another, not everyone. So the Carrington Event was in 1859, and yeah, there were telegraph systems that worked just fine for hours with no actual battery power going into them; just the solar power was causing this to happen. And there’s amazing transcripts of telegraph operators being like, “Okay, take your battery off. All right. This is working better.” Absolutely amazing.

Fraser: Yeah.

Pamela: There was another storm in 1872 that caused fires, and there were actually aurora seen in Bombay and Khartoum, which are rather…

Fraser: That’s south.

Pamela: Yeah. Yeah, and then in 1921, we had more things that caused fires, this time in New York City, and it was associated with the trains more. So we know that in recent history at least three times in 60-some-odd years, there were massive, debilitating storms, and we’ve just been lucky in the modern era.

Fraser: And it’s also interesting like astronomers have seen flares even more powerful than the ones that triggered the Carrington Event just not headed towards us, so they’ve watched them pointed, you know, the Sun’s gun went off in a different direction than where the Earth was, but if it had hit us, it would have been devastating. And the thing that I always find so interesting is that there are these tree ring effects that have been found where very powerful solar storms have hit the Earth, and it caused a sort of cascade of I think carbon-14 to be released into the atmosphere, and it was drawn up in trees, and they were able to see these. There was like…

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: …six of these events over the last like 2,000 years, and the craziest part is that the Carrington Event doesn’t even register. So there are six events – maybe more – that are vastly more destructive, more damaging than the Carrington Event that have happened within a couple of millennium. So, you know, we talked about this specific cycle leading up to this, and we know all the interesting things the Sun can do. What was the expectation of astronomers that for what was going to happen this cycle?

Pamela: So we do run computer models. We don’t have as much data as we’d like since STEREO A and B aren’t both currently working to give us data on other parts of the Sun. That was one of the glories of having STEREO A and B is we got a fuller picture of the entire sphere of the Sun. But going into it based on sunspot numbers, based on activity levels ,based on all the things that we can measure, compared to past behaviors, it’s basically meteorology of the Sun, folks. It’s not an exact science. There were two different models. One said that we would have a lower solar max, so less activity; the other said we’d have significantly more. And at this point, what we know from past behavior is the rate at which the number of sunspots increases from basically zero at solar min to whatever the peak is going to be any given cycle – the rate at which that goes up tells you how quickly solar max is coming – latest data shows we’re about a year out right now – and it also indicates to an inexact degree what that entire curve is going to look like. And it looks like we’re probably going to peak at a fairly average peak. So last year was significantly below normal; this year’s looking like it’s going to be kind of average a year from now. But there is very little relationship between how big the coronal mass ejections, how big the flares are, and solar max. What matters is the bigger the solar max, the more events there are, and the higher the probability of one hitting us rather than empty space.

Fraser: And it’s interesting. I don’t know if you’re looking at the graph of the number of solar flares that have happened, and so in 2021, there was a couple of small flares. In 2022, there were about 25 powerful flares, and then in 2023, there have been almost 50.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: So, it just keeps growing.

Pamela: I have to admit I had a long, hard discussion with my bank account last week because this solar max is looking like it’s going to be really cool, and the time to see it is going to be either next fall – so fall 2024 around equinox – or March 2025 around equinox. Aurora are always best around equinox. You can see them the entire winter long; that’s just when they’re typically best, so increasing statistics and wanting some daylight wherever I go. Nut the best places to go for aurora trips are super expensive.

Fraser: Iceland.

Pamela: I’m apparently going to wait another 11 years.

Fraser: Right. Yeah, I might go to Iceland this fall.

Pamela: Did you see the pictures from – I think it was two nights ago?

Fraser: No.

Pamela: There are amazing… so the Blue Lagoon Resort, which is north and west of the city of Grindavik which is near where this brand new eruption went… The Blue Lagoon Resort with its natural springs does aurora watches, and while the resort is completely closed pending volcanic eruption, there’s still cameras. And they have pictures that I saw posted of aurora and baby volcano, and it was super exciting. I want to see aurora and baby volcano.

Fraser: Yeah, yeah. So I’m just comparing the cycle 24, and so it peaked at about 40 solar flares. So we haven’t hit solar maximum, yet, but we’re already 10 flares more than the peak of Cycle 24, so I would say it came on pretty fast and has grown quite strongly and so could very well be… when you look at… like it took four years building up to the solar max, as you say, we have one more year. And so if these things continue, then there should be another flare. Now, for those of us who aren’t worried about infrastructure, like what this really means is this is your chance to see an aurora.

Pamela: Go. Go look. Go.

Fraser: Yeah. Yeah, and you know, every time we talk about this like, find some kind of aurora alert app; no, we don’t have any recommendations. I’m sorry. Put it on your phone. Get it to tell you when there’s activity in your area, and this year, it could be pretty far south. There were some auroras that were seen in northern Arizona; there were auroras that were seen, you know, in France. So as this solar activity builds and as you get more and more of these powerful solar storms, then your chances of seeing aurora get better and better. Find a place that you’ve got a nice view to the north where you’ve got good dark skies, set up your Aurora alert, and then when the aurora alert comes in, go for it! Go to your spot, and maybe you’ll see something… and maybe you won’t. But you know, I always say you miss 100% of the auroras that you don’t try to see.

Pamela: And there are amazing, amazing destinations in Alaska, in all of the Scandinavian countries, in Iceland. Choose the ancillary activities you want, whether it be a spa, horseback riding, or just a private glass-covered igloo to spend the night under blankets looking at the stars. There is an adventure for you out there waiting to happen. Maybe this time, maybe in 11 years. It depends on your bank account.

Fraser: Yeah, so I mean, if people want the low-cost version, and you live somewhere in mid latitudes…

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: You know like a person like me… I live in Canada obviously, but I’m in southern Canada; it’s not great. But northern U.S., the middle of Europe, Japan, South Australia.

Pamela: Yeah, the app is just fine for you. I’ve seen amazing aurora from New Hampshire, absolutely amazing from New Hampshire.

Fraser: And the greatest aurora that I ever saw was from this process.

Pamela: I was scared of aurora growing up. Did you see aurora growing up?

Fraser: Oh, yeah. Yeah, quite a bit.

Pamela: I didn’t know what they were, and they looked like the ghosts from the old Warner Brothers cartoons coming up from the horizon. So tell your children what aurora are, people. Tell your children. This is the lesson.

Fraser: Right. Yeah. Well, and they’re very different, and so like I’ve seen ones which are these green sheets, I’ve seen ones that were like red stripe that just runs across the entire sky like a seam in the sky, kind of bizarre. But yeah, and then I think if you have a little more money, this is it. This is your, you know, next year, you’re going to want to go to Norway, to Iceland, to Alaska, to northern Canada, southern Argentina, Tasmania… I’m trying to think of places where you can go. Antarctica…

Pamela: Patagonia.

Fraser: This is your chance. Yeah. Yeah, Patagonia. And it should be good, but you know, I mean I think this is like the lesson that we’ve really learned is you have to just go. Like you still haven’t seen true totality of an eclipse, yet.

Pamela: No, because I keep getting rained on. I keep trying! I do keep trying.

Fraser: Yeah, yeah, and so like you’re gonna try again in April.

Pamela: Yes.

Fraser: You know… round four for Pamela, round two for me. And so you’ve just gotta like… there’s no guarantees…

Pamela: Right.

Fraser: …in this world…

Pamela: Right.

Fraser: …when it comes to astronomical events, and yet, if it plays out, then wow, is it amazing.

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: And so, like, you never really know, but when you look at how fast this solar activity is coming on, how high it’s already reached…

Pamela: Yeah.

Fraser: …a year away from solar max… it does feel like it’s going to be a very good year.

Pamela: Yeah. Oh, okay, so I want to go. I’m clearly going to be waiting, but just remember, folks, do pay attention to space weather, and we’re about to learn things we never knew about how Starlinks react, about how CanSats react. And the scary thing before we go… I just want to make sure everyone knows is when that atmosphere gets bigger, it’s creating new drag on spacecraft, and the amount of drag they experience is is related to the direction of motion, the shape of the spacecraft, in the direction, and that shape of the spacecraft in the direction of motion adds a chaos factor that we don’t always know how to calculate. So when these flares hit the planet, everything’s orbit changes in a somewhat unpredictable way, and as we’re filling up low earth orbit with more and more and more stuff, collisions are getting more likely. At some point this is going to cause a collision, so it’s all fun and games until somebody’s spacecraft hits somebody else’s spacecraft.

Fraser: Yes.

Pamela: So enjoy it while you can and realize what is fun and games to us and our cameras is also devastating to satellite operators.

Fraser: So there was a paper that came out, and we reported on it on Universe Today. I haven’t seen anybody else report on this, yet.

Pamela: The FAA report?

Fraser: No no no. About… that essentially, we are putting more charged particles into the atmosphere.

Pamela: Oh, yeah.

Fraser: And so we are creating our own version of the ionosphere, and when we reach millions of satellites with billions of pieces of space junk, it will overwhelm the Earth’s natural ionosphere with unpredictable results, and so just when you thought there was, like, you know, that we’ve found all places that we could… all the environments that we could affect… turns out, we might cause damage to the magnetosphere of Earth with all of our satellites.

Pamela: Oh, dear.

Fraser: Isn’t that great? Yeah. Yeah.

Pamela: Happy holidays, everyone.

Fraser: Happy holidays, everybody.

Pamela: Hey, today is solstice or tomorrow is solstice?

Fraser: Tomorrow.

Pamela: Tomorrow. So Happy Solstice and Merry Perihelion in early January.

Fraser: All right. Thanks, Pamela.

Pamela: Okay, thank you, Fraser, and thank you to everyone out there who helps us through Patreon. This week I would like to thank The Big Squish Squash, Justin Proctor, Cooper, Georgi Ivanov, Benjamin Müller, Don Mundis, Eran Segev, Peter, Philip Grand, James Rodger, Sam Brooks and his Mom, Camy Raissian, Sean Martz, Nate Detwiler, Dean, Kimberly Rieck, Disasterina, Jeff Willson, Tim Gerrish, Paul D Disney, Janelle, Michelle Cullen, Benjamin Davies, Gabriel Gauffin, Dwight Illk, Phillip Walker, Brian Kilby, Jordan Turner, Bob Zatzke, Sydnie Walker, David Bogaty, Maxim Levet, Justin S, Ruben McCarthy, Arthur Latz-Hall, Paul Esposito, Jason Kardokus, Ron Thorrsen – we only have two episodes in December; I’m sorry – Robert Hundl, Daniel Donaldson, Timelord Iroh, Frank Stuart, Kristian Golding, Geoff MacDonald, Leigh Harborne, Nicholas Cunningham, Cody Nitschke, Conrad Haling, and Slug. Thank you, everyone.

Fraser: Thanks, everyone, and we’ll see you next year.

Pamela: Buh bye.

Back to Top

Follow along and learn more: