An imminent period of low activity on the sun might unleash showers of cosmic rays that can knock out the electric grid, shut down the Internet and disrupt mobile phone and GPS service.
That’s because the sun is nearing a “solar minimum” — a period of low sunspot activity that can have profound effects on Earth, astronomers say. Despite the name, a solar minimum can be dangerous, according to Professor Yvonne Elsworth of the University of Birmingham.
The sun has not had any spots for more than 40 days.
During a solar minimum, Earth’s thermosphere – an outer layer – cools and can collapse. That makes Earth more susceptible to cosmic rays, which are “high energy particles accelerated toward the solar system by distant supernova explosions and other violent events in the galaxy,” according to NASA. That may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but it can have a big impact on Earth, Elsworth and NASA say.
A “fundamental change in the nature of the [sun’s magnetic] dynamo may be in progress,” Elsworth told The Sun newspaper.
She told The Express, “We are not quite sure what the consequences of this will be but it’s clear that we are in unusual times.”
Astronomers say some of the effects of a solar minimum could be:
- Interfering with satellites, which can disrupt GPS, Internet, television and phone service.
- Bringing down power grids.
- Endangering astronauts.
Solar minimums occur every 11 years and can spark coronal holes in the sun. According to NASA, “Streams of solar wind flowing from coronal holes can cause space weather effects near Earth when they hit Earth’s magnetic field. These effects can include temporary disturbances of the Earth’s magnetosphere, called geomagnetic storms, auroras, and disruptions to communications and navigation systems.”
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