Science 3 min read

We Finally Know: "Plasma Tsunamis" Responsible for Sunspot Cycles

Astronomers have finally gotten to the bottom of sunspot cycles, identifying events marking the solar activity’s highs and lows. They predict the next solar cycle to kick off one year from now.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

The Sun. As our home star, it’s a gigantic ball of gas and plasma whose activity calls the tune in the whole solar system. Its power is as life-giving as it could be devastating.

As far as scientists are concerned, solar activity rises and falls following an 11-year cycle, which is part of another 22-year cycle. A discovery made way back in the 19th century. The sunspot cycles are demonstrated by the varying count of dark spots on the Sun’s surface, which are cooler than the surrounding areas on the solar photosphere.

Astronomers don’t fully understand the mechanisms underpinning this temporary solar phenomenon. But now, new research provides valuable insights as to what causes sunspots to appear in the first place.

Sunspot Cycles Subject to “Terminator” Events and Solar Tsunamis

Scientists have been observing sunspots, intrigued by the phenomenon, for centuries. The first written accounts of sunspots were recorded around 800 B.C., with speculations going from crossing unknown planets to dark clouds in the Sun’s atmosphere.

Then, it became clear that the Sun’s magnetic field has a significant role to play in the appearance and disappearance of these massive sunspots that can reach up to 50,000 kilometers in diameter (Earth’s diameter is 12,742 km!).

Recently, it was suggested that the alignment of planets in the solar system might have an effect on the Sun’s 11 and 22-year cycles, which is a clocked process,  meaning very regular.

Now, researchers from NASA, the University of Maryland, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) have identified what they call terminator events which they believe mark the end of sunspot cycles.

According to the researchers, these events could explain the process of how the sun transitions from periods of lower activity to periods of higher activity.

The team based their study on the analysis of about 140 years worth of historical data tracking solar activity, collected by ground observatories and NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (Stereo) and Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO).

Read More: Scientists Crack The Mystery Of The Magnetic Waves Heating The Sun

“The evidence for terminators has been hidden in the observational record for more than a century, but until now, we didn’t know what we were looking for,” said NCAR scientist Scott McIntosh, who directs the center’s High Altitude Observatory and works on both studies. “By combining such a wide variety of observations over so many years, we were able to piece together these events and provide an entirely new look at how the Sun’s interior drives the solar cycle.”

According to the paper, published in the journal Solar Physics, Solar Cycle 24, the solar cycle we’re in now, would come to an end in the first half of next year, leaving it to Solar Cycle 25 to kick off shortly after.

The team used a sophisticated computer model to simulate how a terminator event could trigger a new sunspot cycle. The simulations “show that ‘solar tsunamis’ could provide the connection and explain the Sun’s remarkably rapid transition from one cycle to the next.”

The accurate timing of sunspot cycles is of significant scientific importance. Calendars predicting the start and end of solar cycles would provide at least time to deal with solar storms that can be catastrophic.

Read More: What Really Happened at the Sunspot Observatory in New Mexico?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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