but somewhere day will break
and while our side is fast asleep,
the other side’s awake.
The world takes turns at day and night
and each side has its share.
The sun is shining all the time.
The sun shines everywhere!
from: The Sun Shines Everywhere!
written by Mary Ann Hoberman
illustrated by Luciano Lozano
Little, Brown and Company, 2019
Just like fashion trends, the economy, and political elections, our sun’s activity is tuned to a cycle. During each 11-or-so-year cycle, the sun’s magnetic activity increases and decreases and generates more or less sun spots and intense solar flares. Scientists believe the sun is entering the most active phase of its current cycle, the solar maximum, and expects it to peak in 2025. Then, solar activity will begin to decrease.
Solar flares, eruptions that send powerful bursts of energy and material into space, cause the aurora borealis and other auroras. Scientists are working out ways to better predict the frequency and strength of solar flares.
When I first read about solar flares, I wondered what are they? Are they dangerous? What causes them? Turns out, predicting the sun’s weather is trickier than predicting our own Earth’s weather. It all has to do with electromagnetism.
Although I had heard of electromagnetism, I thought electricity and magnetism were each its own thing.
I plug in my coffee pot and hit the start button to begin my day. I flip a switch to turn on the light to find the cat food and dishes. I open my iPad and sip coffee in my green reading chair. Always, in that order.
When the water pump on our 20-year-old dishwasher blew last week, my requirement for its replacement was a magnetic door. I have two magnets, a D for dirty and a C for clean. I stick the D closest to the sink and keep loading. When the dishwasher beeps, I know it's time to empty. I move the C to the closest spot. The letters are leftovers from when the grandkids were first learning about letter-sound connections. We had lots of magnets (numbers and letters) that we used to spell out their names and objects like cat and refrigerator. Or we just played with the sounds. They stuck to the refrigerator like magic.
But it turns out electromagnetism is one thing.
It is one of the four fundamental forces of nature, acting on subatomic particles, such as protons and electrons, holding all the matter in the universe together. Protons with their positive charge cling to electrons with their negative charge. As current flows through matter, electricity is generated. Electromagnetism, over simplified, I know, but there it is.
It is the electromagnetism of the sun that causes solar flares. The sun is not a solid, liquid, or gas. It is made of the fourth matter, plasma. According to Dr. Eoin Carley, Postdoctoral Researcher at Trinity College Dublin and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS), “The solar atmosphere is a hotbed of extreme activity, with plasma temperatures in excess of 1 million degrees Celsius and particles that travel close to light-speed. The light-speed particles shine bright at radio wavelengths, so we're able to monitor exactly how plasmas behave with large radio telescopes.” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/05/190524094320.htm
By studying the behavior of plasmas, scientists are trying to discover how to harness the energy from plasmas to create a fusion reactor, much safer, cleaner, and more efficient than the fission nuclear reactors we are using now.
A solar flare is a sudden, intense, bright light usually occurring close to sunspots. The flare spews plasma outward from near the surface of the sun. Powerful flares spew plasma outward into outer space. Besides plasma, they emit lots of radio waves, as Dr. Carley has shown. It can take up to three days for this ejected plasma to reach our upper atmosphere where the charged particles react with oxygen and nitrogen to create the colorful displays at Earth’s poles.
The electromagnetic disturbances, called solar storms or geomagnetic storms, vary in intensity. The stronger the storm, the farther south (or north) the auroras can be seen.
Last Thursday (12/10/2020), NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a geomagnetic storm watch. A particularly strong flare was expected to spew electromagnetic material directly toward Earth, rather than outer space. It would have produced auroras that could be viewed as far south as Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, and Boston. www.MercuryNews.com (December 10, 2020) and probably would have caused disruptions to tele-communication systems, created satellite disturbances, and affected GPS monitors.
As it happened, the plasmic material shot into outer space, and other than astrophysicists, meteorologists, and a few interested science professors, life went on as usual.
NOAA uses ground-based instruments and satellites to monitor solar weather events, but solar weather events are hard to predict.
Several atmospheric layers protect us from the sun. Active ions in the ionosphere absorb radiation. The magnetosphere, our surrounding magnetic field, also protects against the potential damage of solar flares.
And we protect ourselves and our families with sunscreen and sunglasses. I’m not worried. I’ll just smile at my new solar panels on (infrequent) sunny days during this upcoming northeastern Ohio winter.
-—stay curious! (and shine brightly)