Solar Minimum Is Approaching, Cosmic Rays Intensifying
SOLAR MINIMUM IS APPROACHING… Today marks the 5th day in a row and the 35th day in 2017 that the sun has been blank–no sunspots. This exceeds the total number of spotless days in all of 2016 (32). The accelerating pace of spotlessness is a sign that Solar Minimum is approaching. Forecasters expect the sunspot cycle, which swings like a pendulum between high and low sunspot number every ~11 years, to reach its nadir in 2019-2020. Stay tuned for more blank suns. Free: Aurora Alerts
… AND COSMIC RAYS ARE INTENSIFYING: Many people think Solar Minimum is boring. Wrong. During the nadir of the sunspot cycle, the entire heliosphere changes its personality with many consequences for the space around our planet. One of the most important changes involves cosmic rays–high-energy radiation reaching Earth from deep space. As sunspot numbers decline, cosmic rays intensify.
Is this actually happening? The answer is “yes.” Spaceweather.com and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been monitoring radiation levels in the stratosphere with frequent high-altitude balloon flights over California. Here are the latest results, current as of May 6, 2017:
The data show cosmic ray levels intensifying with an approximately 13% increase since March 2015.
Cosmic rays are high-energy photons and subatomic particles accelerated in our direction by distant supernovas and other violent events in the Milky Way. Usually, cosmic rays are held at bay by the sun’s magnetic field, which envelops and protects all the planets in the Solar System. But the sun’s magnetic shield is weakening in 2017 as the solar cycle shifts from Solar Maximum to Solar Minimum. More and more cosmic rays are therefore reaching our planet.
How does this affect us? Cosmic rays penetrate commercial airlines, dosing passengers and flight crews enough that pilots are classified as occupational radiation workers. Some research shows that cosmic rays can seed clouds and trigger lightning, potentially altering weather and climate. Furthermore, there are studies ( #1, #2, #3, #4) linking cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias in the general population.
The sensors we send to the stratosphere measure X-rays and gamma-rays, which are produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth’s atmosphere. The energy range of the sensors, 10 keV to 20 MeV, is similar to that of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners.
NOTE: This increase is not happening ONLY over California. All parts of the world will be experiencing elevated levels of cosmic rays. The amount varies from place to place depending on the uneven protection afforded by our own planet’s magnetic field. In the week ahead we will share new data from intercontinental balloon launches tracing the global response to this phenomenon.