Sunday, December 9, 2018

Scientists Predict the Sun's Activity to Reveal Expected Environmental Conditions in Space

The Sun’s activity controls our space environment.  Dark magnetic spots on the Sun known as sunspots sometimes release vast magnetic storms that can cripple satellite and wreak havoc with our space-reliant technologies. Bhowmik and Nandy have used computer simulations of the Sun’s magnetic fields (left of above image) to predict the future sunspot activity levels expected over the next decade. The prediction would be useful for planning satellite launches, estimating satellite mission lifetimes, the probability of solar storm damage and the Sun’s influence on global climate over the next decade.

Team of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata scientists has predicted the sun’s activity in coming years which reveal future space environmental conditions. Due to this study, imminent sun induced cooling of climate has been ruled out.

IISER Kolkata based Indian scientists have come out with a prediction for the upcoming sunspot cycle which reveals the expected conditions in space over the next decade. Their research work has appeared in the renowned journal Nature Communications. “This research has direct relevance for protection of India’s space-based technological assets and the global climate” said Prof. Sourav Pal, Director, IISER Kolkata.

Just like weather on Earth, there is weather in space. The Sun radiates light in various colors, including some that we cannot perceive such as UV rays and X-rays. A constant stream of charged particles consisting of electrons and protons also flows out from the Sun permeating the solar system. Sometimes the Sun releases vast magnetic storms that speed towards Earth at astonishing speeds. These space storms can cripple satellites, trip electric power grids and lead to large-scale telecommunication breakdowns. It has been known for some time that the cycle of sunspots control all these aspects of solar activity and determines its influence on our space environment and climate. Astrophysicists have been attempting for decades to devise intelligent methods of predicting the future occurrence of sunspots.

Sunspots are about ten times the size of Earth and have magnetic fields which are ten thousand times stronger. These spots have been observed through telescopes since the times of Galileo and these observations show that there is a cycle of sunspots with some cycles being stronger or weaker than average. The current sunspot cycle dubbed as solar cycle 24 is just ending and it has been one of the weakest cycles in a century. In fact, over the last several decades, successive sunspot cycles have significantly weakened in strength and some earlier studies based on simplistic statistical approaches have claimed a significant weakening of the Sun’s activity is imminent, resulting in a loss of sunspot cycles. The last such episode, known as the Maunder minimum occurred between 1645-1715 and coincided with the little ice age, a period of long winters and global cooling. This association has led to widespread speculation that a significantly weak sunspot cycle 25 or an impending disappearance of sunspots for many decades would alleviate global warming and bring down the Earth’s temperature.

Dibyendu Nandi, Professor at IISER Kolkata and an Associate at IUCAA and his PhD student Prantika Bhowmik have devised a novel technique to predict the next sunspot cycle. Their technique has been very successful in matching sunspot activity observations over the last one hundred years – a first for any team in the world. Their method also makes it possible to make predictions almost a decade before the next sunspot cycle activity peaks in strength – again a first.

Prof. Somak Raychaudhury (Director, IUCAA) says "The behavior of the magnetic field, and the particles emitted from the Sun has a profound effect on the Earth’s climate and living conditions of the Earth’s inhabitants, as well as various other activities that involve long-range communication and satellite technology. Normally we assume that these effects are too complex for us to predict and restrict ourselves to reacting to these phenomena as best we can. Bhowmik and Nandy’s models show considerable predictive power, and it looks like we will now be able to predict the fluctuations of solar activity much more reliably. We are proud that this work has been done in India and also by an University associate of IUCAA and his student."

Crucially, the Indian scientists predict that the next sunspot cycle would not be insignificant. Their ensemble forecast surprisingly suggests it could even be stronger than the cycle which is just ending. They expect the next cycle to start rising in about a year following the end of the current sunspot cycle minimum and peak in 2024. Bhowmik and Nandi predict space environmental conditions over the next decade would be similar or slightly harsher compared to the last decade. They find no evidence of an impending disappearance of sunspot cycles and thus conclude that speculations of an imminent Sun induced cooling of global climate is very unlikely. The research of the team members was supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, Indo-French Centre for the Promotion of Advanced Research and NASA.



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