NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center has released a “revised prediction” for the current solar cycle, which states that the upcoming solar maximum will arrive sooner and be more explosive than they initially forecast, reports Live Science.
Scientists forecasting solar weather now say that we are fast approaching an explosive peak in solar activity.
The sun’s current cycle, Solar Cycle 25, officially began in early-2019.
At the time, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) predicted that Solar Cycle 25 would most likely peak at some point in 2025 and be underwhelming compared with average cycles, much like its predecessor, Solar Cycle 24.
They were wrong, SC25 ramped-up quicker than expected and is now threatening to end prematurely (potentially with a bang).
On October 25, the SWPC finally issued a “revised prediction” for Solar Cycle 25 and acknowledged that its initial estimations were “no longer reliable enough for SWPC’s customers”–speaking to its private space exploration and satellite companies.
The new update states that “solar activity will increase more quickly and peak at a higher level” than initially predicted and that solar maximum could come as early as January next year and no later than October.
Also worth noting, despite SC25’s stronger than expected start, the cycle is still running historically weak, and will comfortably conclude as such if its max does indeed arrive promptly:
A more active solar cycle peak could lead to disruptions here on Earth.
As I reported Tuesday, this week marks the 20th anniversary of the Great Halloween Storm of 2003.
Solar Cycle 23 was winding down this time 20 years ago, and space weather forecasters were talking about how quiet things would soon become. Suddenly, the sun unleashed two of the strongest solar flares of the Space Age: an X17 flare on Oct 28, followed by an X10 on Oct 29, 2003. Both hurled fast-moving Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) directly toward Earth.
Many Earth-orbiting satellites experienced data outages, reboots and even unwanted thruster firings. Some operators simply gave up and turned their instruments off. Many of Earth’s satellites were actually ‘lost’.
In a 2020 paper entitled “Flying Through Uncertainty,” USAF satellite operators recalled how “the majority of satellites (in low Earth orbit) were temporarily lost, requiring several days of around-the-clock work to reestablish their positions.”
Most satellite operators today have never experienced anything like the Halloween storms. “That’s a problem,” writes Dr Tony Phillips of spaceweather.com, “because the number of objects they need to track has sharply increased.”
Since 2003, the population of active satellites has ballooned to more than 7,000, with an additional 20,000+ pieces of debris larger than 10 cm. Losing track of so many objects in such a congested environment could theoretically trigger a cascade of collisions, rendering low Earth orbit unusable for years following an extreme geomagnetic storm.
Given our ever-increasing dependence on this tech, as well our planet’s ever-waning magnetic field strength, that’s scary.
A more active solar maximum poses a “larger hazard for these critical technologies and services,” NOAA representatives wrote in their updated forecast. Also, wildlife experts have warned that a more active solar maximum could disorient animals that rely on Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, such as large whales and migrating birds.
Moving forward, SWPC will now shift to a novel, more flexible forecast system to be updated at the start of every month.
“We expect that our new experimental forecast will be much more accurate than the 2019 panel prediction and, unlike previous solar cycle predictions, it will be continuously updated on a monthly basis as new sunspot observations become available,” explained Mark Miesch, a solar physicist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead researcher at SWPC.
“It’s a pretty significant change.”