In the most alarming, and science fiction-sounding, news you’re likely to hear for a while: the Sun’s polarity is about to flip upside down. Ignore the scare stories that this could wipe out world communication: for us Earthlings, the flip will likely be a beautiful nonevent.
The first thing to know is, this isn’t the first time the sun’s polarity has shifted. In fact, it happens about every eleven years, and how it happens is rather interesting.
Throughout the eleven year cycle, the sun’s activity builds and builds. During this time, the sun begins to develop so-called sunspots or active regions of intense magnetic activity that present as blotches close to the sun’s equator. These active regions spread toward the poles and cause the sun’s polar magnetic fields to weaken. When the poles reach zero they rebound, but with north and south reversed. The process then begins again. The mechanics behind the flip aren’t precisely understood and, as usual, scientists around the world are keen to examine the entire happening for any clues as to the mathematical workings of this amazing solar event.
Add to this that the change is technically half done already: the Sun’s north pole has already changed, so the Sun currently has two magnetic south poles. You can read background on this phenomena and the last time the Sun had two north poles here.
Of particular interest is the reason behind why the Sun’s polar fields have been getting weaker during the past 30 years, as have the sunspots, and whether there’s an overarching pattern scientists have not yet unraveled. To discern that, scientists will keep careful track of the sun’s rebounding strength to see whether the coming eleven year cycle will be a relatively active one or whether the trend of relative weakness will continue.
As to whether the pole shift could cause problems on Earth, there is a small chance that the Sun’s flip could cause relatively minor satellite communication disturbances, and there’s the potential for a few problems with our energy grid and our GPS. The main point to get across though, and something scientists have been hammering home to the press these past few months, is that the Sun’s polarity change won’t really cause us earthlings many problems at all. In fact, we probably won’t even know it’s happened.
Todd Hoeksema, director of the Wilcox Solar Observatory, is quoted by the Independent as saying: “It’s not a catastrophic event, it’s a large scale event that has some real implications, but it’s not something we need to worry about.”
To reiterate, the polar shift isn’t predicted to spawn any large solar storms, or any kind of solar output that could be badly damaging to our planet’s infrastructure. It is true, though, that because the sun’s influence is so very large, in fact stretching past the used-to-be planet Pluto, our solar system will be in for some interesting magnetic happenings: and this is where the polar flip gets beneficial and beautiful.
For one, the solar flip likely means increased protection from cosmic rays that can damage our satellites and our astronauts. If we want to talk visibly impressive, though, there’s the fact that this event is predicted to increase the range and intensity of our planet’s auroras or, as we are more familiar with them, the Northern Lights.
Auroras, in this sense, are the result of energetic charged particles colliding with atoms in our planet’s thermosphere, which then release burning gases that produce different colored lights. The auroras are nearly always spectacular, but the Sun’s polar flip means that this December’s auroras are slated to be some of the most awe inspiring for many months, if not years.
Interestingly, Earth will not be alone when it comes to the aurora phenomena, with Saturn also experiencing an increase in its own light shows, while Jupiter is said to face an increase in storm activity.
Scientists won’t know for certain when the flip happens, so we’ll likely have to wait another three weeks or so to get word. In the meantime, there’s no need to worry about the polarity flip, but every reason to marvel at it as one more in a list of the universe’s wonders.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.