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The Sun’s Magnetic Field is About to Flip, and It Will Be Beautiful

The Sun’s Magnetic Field is About to Flip, and It Will Be Beautiful

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.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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118 comments

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8:17AM PST on Dec 28, 2013

noted

10:13AM PST on Dec 3, 2013

There is a lot of flipping going on! Interesting story about the flipping sun.

7:10PM PST on Nov 26, 2013

For anyone who wishes to see the great spectacle of the Northern Lights, Canada invites you to come up north to watch them anytime you want. There are lots of places that you can camp or lodge at to watch them. We would love to have you come up and visit....!

4:56PM PST on Nov 26, 2013

Lynn C and Dan B: Thanks for the notes - it's always a bit of a risk, running a joke like that. Nice to know people still have a sense of humor. I volunteer as a telescope operator at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland, CA, and we get all kinds, there, including those frightened by science they don't know or understand. (E.g., the end of the Mayan calendar, planetary alignments, or Planet X [Nibiru], etc.)
-
Also, don't give up on seeing an aurora despite not being near the Arctic/Antarctic circles. When solar maxes are really big, they can be seen in the northern hemisphere sometimes as far south as New Mexico(!) I saw one from Oakland (near San Francisco) during the last solar max. Not quite as cool as the ones seen near the earth's poles, but the northern half of the sky turned a kind of shimmering dull red, and on the northern horizon, you could seen green "worms" slowly appearing and disappearing. Maybe we'll see it again this time around.

8:28AM PST on Nov 23, 2013

Don S. You're a riot!
But also a bit of a teacher - this is a perfect example of how we - the gullible public - can be horn-swoggled by something printed in newspapers, "reported " on TV and/or posted on the internet.

Thanks for the giggle and the lesson in critical thinking.

3:24AM PST on Nov 23, 2013

interesting?

5:29PM PST on Nov 22, 2013

Great article! I didn't know about this, and it's good to learn something so interesting - really fascinating stuff! Sadly, because I'm in southern England, I don't think the 'northern lights' will ever be seen this far south, but will be watching the skies for the next few weeks, anyway...just in case! Thankyou for a truly interesting read!

5:52AM PST on Nov 22, 2013

Interesting. Thanks.

4:57AM PST on Nov 22, 2013

very interesting. thanks

2:10AM PST on Nov 22, 2013

Interesting. I'm about to flip too. Selling my house and moving. That may mean being absent for some time, as there may not be a telephone connection where I'm going - by the sea and near a forest.

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