for National Geographic News
The next 11-year solar storm cycle should be significantly stronger than the current one, which may mean big problems for power grids and GPS systems and other satellite-enabled technology, scientists announced today.
The stronger solar storms could start as early as this year or as late as 2008 and should peak around 2012.
"We predict the next solar cycle will be 30 to 50 percent stronger than the last cycle," said Mausumi Dikpati, a solar scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, yesterday in a telephone briefing with reporters.
The last cycle peaked in 2001.
A new technique enabled the scientists to better predict the severity of the next cycle. The technique, called helioseismology, allows researchers to "see" inside the sun by tracing sound waves reverberating inside the suncreating a picture of the interior like ultrasound creates a picture of an unborn baby.
"For the first time we can predict the strength of the 11-year solar activity cycle using computer simulations of the sun's physics," Dikpati said.
Storms in the Sun
Solar storms are linked to twisted magnetic fields in the sun that suddenly snap and release tremendous amounts of energy. The storms can disrupt satellite communications, cause power outages, and expose astronauts to high amounts of radiation.
Predicting space weather is becoming more important as more people rely on technology that solar storms can disrupt, according to Richard Behnke, director of upper atmosphere research with the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.
"This prediction of an active solar cycle suggests we are potentially looking at more communication and navigation disruptions, more satellite failures, possible disruption of electric grids and blackouts, more dangerous conditions for astronautsall these things," Behnke said during the briefing.
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