Scientists Predict Weak Sun Activity During Next Solar Cycle

IgorZh/Shutterstock.com

Featured eBooks

Digital First
Cloud Smarter
Cybersecurity & the Road Ahead

Low solar activity should mean relatively calm space weather for the next 11 years.

The sun—a raging mass of plasma 330,000 times the size of Earth that produces light through countless violent nuclear fusion reactions each second—is going to be pretty boring for the next 11 years.

The next solar cycle—Solar Cycle 25—is expected to be weak, according to the Solar Cycle Prediction Panel, comprised of experts from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other scientific institutions. That means the sun isn’t as likely to cause geomagnetic or solar radiation storms that cause radio blackouts or other problems here on Earth.

Past studies have indicated a single coronal mass ejection—a plasma eruption—from the sun could wreak havoc on satellites, shut down power grids and cost the United States as much as $2.6 trillion in damages primarily to electrical infrastructure.

While a relatively tranquil solar cycle is good news, scientists made clear the sun’s activity can change at any moment.

“While we are not predicting a particularly active Solar Cycle 25, violent eruptions from the sun can occur at any time,” said Doug Biesecker, panel co-chair and a solar physicist at NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center.

The forecast follows the White House’s National Space Weather Strategy and Action Plan, released in March. The strategy and action plan’s intent is to improve the nation’s preparedness for space weather events, such as solar flares or magnetic storms. The plan has three pillars: enhancing the protection of critical infrastructure and national security assets; improving the accuracy of space weather forecasts and establishing procedures for responding to space weather events.

While daily weather forecasts generated by data from weather satellites that orbit the Earth have been commonplace for decades, space weather forecasting is a relatively new science based on the sun’s magnetic activity cycle, which changes every 11 years. The first Solar Cycle Prediction Panel convened in 1989 for Solar Cycle 22. Solar Cycle 25, then, is scientists’ fourth attempt at actually forecasting space weather.

Advances in data and satellite technology may allow scientists to perform their most detailed forecast yet. According to NOAA officials, the Solar Cycle Prediction Panel will later this year release a prediction of annual sunspot totals for any given year as well as potentially providing a Solar Flare Probability Forecast.

According to the preliminary prediction, the sun’s activity levels are expected to peak between 2023 and 2026, though even these estimates are well-below historic norms.