The Sun's magnetic field lines are the most distorted at this time due to the magnetic field on the solar equator rotating at a slightly faster pace than at the solar poles.
This causes large numbers of sunspots appear, and the Sun's irradiance output grows by about 0.1 per cent.
The increased energy output of solar maxima can impact global climate and recent studies have shown some correlation with regional weather patterns.
The solar cycle takes an average of about 11 years to go from one solar maximum to the next, with an observed variation in duration of 9 to 14 years for any given solar cycle.
Large solar flares often occur during a maximum. For example, the Solar storm of 1859 struck the Earth with such intensity the northern lights could be seen as far south as Rome.
The last solar maximum was in 2000. In 2006 NASA initially expected a solar maximum in 2010 or 2011, and thought that it could be the strongest since 1958.
However, more recent projections say the maximum should arrive in autumn of 2013 and be the smallest sunspot cycle since 1906.
➨If This Has Happened Before, Then What’s the Big Deal?
Knowing that such an event has happened in our worlds history would surely lead the world’s leaders to prepare for another such event, right? With all of today’s advanced technology we must be prepared.
Well, no. In fact a report commissioned by the office of the President showed that in fact such a storm would not only cause problems for electronic devices, but could potentially bring down the entire power grid. And not just here, but around the world. The kind of damage that would be caused could take months or, more likely, years to repair.
Could you imagine? No electricity for years? No phones, no computers, no internet? That is the possibility that we are facing. However, this would take a massive storm like the one in 1859 to even approach such cataclysmic events, but it is something that we need to be aware of.
➨What Are We Doing To Protect Ourselves From These Events?
In response to the report, scientists from around the world have been working to make our power grid more robust, and are seeking to find ways to protect our satellite systems. However, this work is slow going and Congress needs to be urged to make changes now.
Also, development of other technologies could help protect electronic devices that we use every day. But again, this requires investments by manufacturers that, so far, have been unwilling to make such a commitment.
Another precaution being taken by the government is to implement early warning systems. If we see such a coronal mass ejection, we may only have 18 hours or less before the particle flux reaches Earth. Therefore closely monitoring the Sun’s activity, and then being able to act on information in a short time is vital.
Monitoring the Sun is relatively easy, in fact NASA already does a thorough job of doing that. However, getting the word out to prepare for a coming solar storm is not so simple. So that is one key element that will need to be worked out.
With proper preparation the hope is that such an event will come and go with as little interruption as possible. Of course there will probably be some inconvenience due to such a storm, perhaps significant ones of preparations are put off too long. But ultimately, we should be able to go on normally with our daily lives.