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By Meteorologist Randy Mann
Article published on February 2, 2021

A new solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, began in December of 2019 and the Sun may be coming out of its slumber over the next several years. Many scientists who study the Sun are wondering what this new cycle will be like in terms of sunspot activity.

Sunspots are storms on the Sun. Approximately every 11 years, during the height of a cycle, the Sun’s magnetic poles will flip as the North Pole becomes the South Pole and vice-versa. In the 2010s, the Sun was in a “solar minima,” a period of few sunspots. In fact, the last solar cycle, which was number 24, began in late 2008 and ended late last year. During that time, there were 914 days without a single sunspot on the Sun. Since 1855, the cycle with the most days without sunspots occurred in the early 1900s was Solar Cycle 14 with 1007 days.

According to NASA, Solar Cycle 24, the one we just completed, was very weak as the peak during the height of the cycle was only 114 sunspots. The average is about 179 sunspots during each cycle when the Sun is in its “maxima” phase. NASA projects that the Sun will peak with 115 sunspots in July 2025.

However, according to an article on sciencedaily.com, the National Center of Atmospheric Research is predicting that Solar Cycle 25, the one the Sun just began, will peak with a number between approximately 210 to 260 sunspots. This would be an extremely active cycle if this prediction is accurate. One of the most active cycles was Solar Cycle 19, which began in the spring of 1954. In March of 1958, the Sun peaked with 285 sunspots in one day. The average was 129 sunspots each day during this cycle that ended in late 1964. Most recently, the Sun’s cycles in the mid-1970s through the 1990s were fairly active before sunspot activity dropped significantly in the late 2000s.

During periods of high solar activity, the Sun will often emit more energy consisting of solar flares. The Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the harmful radiation the Sun emits. Most solar flares are harmless and will put on a light show when they come into contact with our magnetic field called the “Aurora Borealis” or “The Northern Lights.” These clouds of electrons, ions and atoms are thrusted into space and can reach the Earth in about 8 minutes as they often travel at the speed of light.

However, a major burst of particles from the Sun’s surface, known as a coronal mass ejection, can take up to 3 to 4 days to arrive at Earth. These massive ejections are rare, but can cause extensive damage to electronic systems, including satellites if they directly hit the Earth. For example, there was one that literally shut down the Hydro-Quebec Power Plant in Canada on March 13, 1989. The solar storm was so intense that the Northern Lights could be seen as far south as Florida and Cuba. Some people thought that a nuclear strike was in progress.

The most spectacular super solar flare was witnessed by England’s foremost solar astronomer, Richard Carrington, on September 1-2, 1859. He first noticed a huge group of sunspots on September 1 and then described “two patches of intensely bright and white light erupting from the sunspots” before they disappeared. On that September night, tremendous auroras of red, green and purple erupted across the Earth. The auroras were so brilliant that one could read a newspaper at night and could be seen as far south as Cuba and Hawaii.

The auroras were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners in the Rocky Mountains. Telegraph systems all over North American and Europe stopped working and some generated sparks and fires.

Many scientists say that if that type of event were to happen today, it would wreak havoc with the world’s high-tech infrastructure, which includes satellites, cell phones and other sensitive equipment. Damage estimates from this type of event today would likely be in the trillions of dollars and take years to recover.

According to Geophysical Research Letters published in January of 2020, new research showed that “severe space super-storms,” emitted from the Sun like the one in 1989, “occurred 42 years out of the last 150 years.” Great super-storms, close to the one in 1859, “occurred in 6 years out of 150.” A Carrington-type event, the biggest in recorded history, is expected to occur once in 150 years. These major events from the Sun often miss our planet, but there was a huge solar storm in July 2012 that narrowly missed Earth.

Solar Cycle