The Sun’s dependability is one of its best traits. Sure, it’s in flux, but fluxing at the speed of the Sun looks like stability in human time. We’re enjoying the midpoint of the most stable time of the sun’s life, as it steadily warms us just so, steadily turning hydrogen into helium through fusion. And with an eleven-year regularity, the sun has a tempestuous season where the magnetic polarity flips, accompanied by solar flares and lots of sunspots. Not a huge deal for us here on Earth, really.
But something's up with the sun this time, guys. It should be reaching its solar peak and its poles should be swapping magnetism right now. Coronal mass ejections should be splashing out into the solar system, disrupting radio signals, busting satellites and perking up those auroras.
Yet, as NASA’s Jonathan Cirtain told The Australian, this solar peak is “a total punk.” After starting roughly two years later than projected, there’s only half as many sunspots as scientists thought they'd see during this solar cycle. Even though the sun had the biggest solar flare of the year last week, the cycle as a whole has been much weaker than expected. Scientists are calling it the weakest solar cycle in 200 years.
Particle flow around the Earth following a mass coronal ejection via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
What’s more, the magnetic poles aren’t flipping as expected. The polar magnetic fields should be weakening, dropping to zero and then re-emerging as opposite polarity. But thus far only the sun’s northern pole has reversed polarity, a year ago, while the southern pole has stayed in place. So the both the poles have the same polarity. Sure, there’s usually a lag between the two, but it usually isn’t this long. Weird stuff.
Scientists don’t know if this is just the end of the weird cycle that started back in 2003 and once the weird polarity swap is complete the sun will return to its more predictable cycles, or if this is part of a longer cycle of quieter magnetism. While people have been watching sunspots since the 18th century, that’s but a blip in sun time.
Ken Tapping, a solar scientist at the National Research Council of Canada told the CBC, “When we see the flip and start to get an idea of how activity starts to build up for the next cycle...I think that will give us an indication of whether the sun will sit there smouldering or whether it's going to come back to usual behaviour."
In his poem, Self-Portrait at 28, Silver Jews-frontman David Berman recalls feeling, “a certain amount of pride at school everytime they called it ‘our sun,’” and I get that. We’re proud of you, and we love you, the sun. Is something bothering you, buddy?