The sun sits at the very centre of the solar system, releasing energy for the earth's plants and animals. Sunspots are magnetic storms on the sun's surface. They give scientists indications of the amount of solar activity. When the magnetic energy linked to sunspots is released, it causes radiation explosions. These aspects of the solar cycle affect the earth and its inhabitants in different ways.
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The solar cycle lasts 11 years. During its cycle, sunspots, solar flares and other magnetic phenomena begin at a low point, rise up to the peak and drop again. When solar activity is at its minimum in the cycle, the sun can go for days without sunspots, but when solar activity is at its maximum, there can be as many as 200 sunspots at a time. The sun's radiation output fluctuates during the course of this cycle.
According to NASA, the cause of solar flares is still unknown. It is known that a sunspot, which is a spot on the sun where strong magnetic fields break through its surface, sometimes becomes unstable and then explodes, emitting the energy of 10 billion hydrogen bombs. This explosion can be seen by the naked eye from the earth as a flash of light. The radiation emitted from a sunspot, can reach the earth 18 to 28 minutes after the explosion. However, it does not have an effect on nature, but rather man-made technology -- it can affect short wave radio communication. The earth's natural defences protect nature from any impact from solar flares.
Times of Depressed Solar Activity
During times of depressed solar activity, the earth experiences cooler global temperatures. For example, from 1645 to 1715, the sun had very few sunspots. This time period was known as Western European's Little Ice Age because it characterised the very cold temperatures that impacted Europe.
Times of Increased Solar Activity
Times of increased solar activity historically correspond to an increase in global temperatures. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the sun experienced heightened activity, and Europe experienced a very mild winter.
In 2010, solar activity heightened with several intense periods of eruption, sometimes all at once. NASA reported that "the sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and the next few years could bring much higher levels of solar activity." Experts predict intense solar storms. Some NASA scientists predict a 22-year peak in 2013 in which the sun's magnetic cycle will occur alongside the pinnacle of the sun's 11-year flare cycle, resulting in a solar "superstorm" that could cause large radiation levels and result in massive blackouts. Power grids, GPS systems, air travel and emergency radio communications could be disrupted for hours or even days.
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- NOAA / Space Weather Prediction Center: Solar Effects
- Live Science; Sun Blamed for Warming of Earth and Other Worlds; Ker Than; March 12, 2007
- The Old Farmer's Almanac: Solar Activity, Solar Cycle Predictions, and Sunspots
- Nature News; Ebbing Sunspot Activity Makes Europe Freeze; Richard Lovett; April 14, 2010
- "The Telegraph"; NASA Warns Solar Flares from 'Huge Space Storm' Will Cause Devastation; Andrew Hough; June 14, 2010
- NASA: Sickening Solar Flares