Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sunspot panic!

Ham radio ops have been in a state of panic over the slow, slow return of sunspots. See, spots on the sun cause the inonosphere to better reflect radio waves so that amateur radio types (like me) can easily talk to others all over the world. The cycles are typically about eleven years in duration from minimum to peak to minimum, but the beginning of cycle 24 has been a bit stubborn in ratcheting up. Some fear another Maunder Millenium, a period of almost a hundred years in the 1500s with no appreciable sunspot activity.

But that is not the real panic lately. An error by some very authoritative sources caused some consternation this week. Ted K7RA does a weekly propagation report, and tells about the deal in this week's edition:

There seems to be more confusion regarding the difference between number of sunspots and sunspot number. Mike Khokhlov, UA9CIR of Ekaterinburg in Asiatic Russia notes that the new Solar Cycle Prediction update for cycle 24 from NOAA (see http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/SolarCycle/index.html) issued a week ago said the cycle may peak four years from now ''with a maximum sunspot number of 90''. But in other reports, such as ARLS003 ( http://www.arrl.org/w1aw/2009-arls003.html), this was changed to ''Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with 90 sunspots per day on average''. Spaceweather.com got it wrong also, saying ''The panel predicts the upcoming Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with 90 sunspots per day, averaged over a month'' (see http://tinyurl.com/qzfsyo).

As mentioned in past bulletins, a good explanation for the arcane method for computing daily sunspot number is at http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/stp/SOLAR/SSN/ssn.html, a NOAA page about the work of Johann Wolf. The two references above to the ''90 sunspots'' error were actually widespread. Just Google the phrase ''90 sunspots per day'' and you will get hundreds of hits. Although NOAA was the source of the original correct information, NOAA News got it wrong at http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2009/20090508_solarstorm.html.

Dennis W9SS saw an Associated Press story last weekend titled ''Warning: Sunspot cycle beginning to intensify''. It was titled differently in different publications (see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30644638/ and note that this also has the ''90 sunspots per day'' error) but Dennis wondered about the geomagnetic storm of 1859 and if it could happen today with the dire results mentioned in the article.
As far as I know, the tales of telegraph wires starting fires and aurora visible around the world were taken from contemporary nineteenth century accounts, and are true. I've heard this story for a long time, and seen references to 1859 newspaper accounts. This would make an interesting subject for historical research.

We really have no way to predict whether this will happen again, but the NAS predictions of 4-10 years recovery and trillions in damages certainly gives one pause for reflection. We do have much more complex and concentrated infrastructure currently, and seem more vulnerable.

This reminds one of the old stories about EMP (electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear blast) in warfare, and the vulnerability of solid state vs. old vacuum tube technology. In the Cold War, one side felt that their military hardware, in fighter jets for example, with modern solid state electronics was far superior to the other side, which may have used older designs with vacuum tubes. But it was pointed out that vacuum tubes are much less vulnerable to an EMP blast. The simpler, hardier design may be superior in a real life battlefield environment that has escalated to the unthinkable level. Thank goodness it was never tested with EMP in a real battle.

Ninety sunspots a day?!? Major interruptions in electric power. Telephone and power lines bursting into flames. Communications being interrupted by solar storms. And not a thing we can do about it. Sounds pretty dire.

But if it helps me chew the rag with that ham in Asiatic Russia...

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