Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sun Erupts with Huge X-Class Flare

Solar maximum may be starting to wane, but the sun has no intention on slipping into the stellar doldrums quietly. At 7:50 p.m. EST on Monday (00:50 UTC, Feb. 25), a sunspot emerging from the southeastern limb of our nearest star unleashed its magnetic fury, exploding with an X5-class flare.

X-class solar flares are the most powerful classification of flare and, if pointing toward Earth, can cause radiation storms and impact our planet’s upper atmosphere, interfering with satellites and global communications.

In this case, however, the flare erupted perpendicular to the direction of Earth, so its impact will be minimal. But it did give space observatories quite a fireworks display.

The sun as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in extreme ultraviolet light -- multimillion degree plasma in the lower corona glows bright in the 193A wavelength SDO filter

In the sequence of images above from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, the fairly quiescent sun suddenly erupts with a flash, leaving a magnetic tangle in its wake. The loops of magnetism and superheated plasma extend from the solar surface reaching high into the multimillion degree solar atmosphere (known as the corona).

It is this region where space weather is spawned, generating rapid flows of charged particles (known as the solar wind), crackling with solar flares and sometimes blasting coronal mass ejections (CMEs) into interplanetary space.

Monday’s flare is the most powerful flare of 2014 and was generated by active region (AR) 1990. Interestingly, the same active region has been responsible for considerable activity during previous rotations across the surface of the sun and this third time, as noted by Tony Phillips at, is showing promise for an uptick in flaring activity.

      X4.9-class solar flare photographed with a variety of cameras that capture only certain parts of the EM spectrum

Although this latest X-class flare is impressive, it still occurred during a solar cycle that has been very lackluster. Solar cycles occur approximately every 11 years and reach a peak in magnetic activity during solar maximum.

The amount of activity is measured by the number of sunspots that can be observed on the solar disk. Sun spots are caused by magnetic field lines erupting through the solar photosphere (the solar ‘surface’) — therefore, the greater the magnetic activity, the higher the number of sunspots.

Recent activity on the sun has prompted space weather forecasters to predict that the sun may see an increase in activity through 2014, creating a “double peak” solar maximum.

                                                                  The Sun Now

 But even if this does happen, the current cycle (Solar Cycle 24) is the weakest humanity has observed since Solar Cycle 14, which had a maximum sunspot count of 64.2 in February 1906.

The sunspot maximum (so far) occurred last summer, hitting a peak of 67.

The underlying reasons behind the variability in activity of our sun are still not fully understood, proving that even our nearest star can be a mystery.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Warning for Planet's Climate Future

World's scientists meet in Japan to complete summary of report that paints bleak future if climate inaction continues

The world's leading climate scientists gathered in Japan on Tuesday to begin hashing out the final details of a "grim" climate report, which both leaked drafts and those familiar with its contents say will call on policy makers to take immediate action or face a climate future that will otherwise be marked by widespread ecological and human catastrophe.

Of those harsh challenges, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  report—according to a draft version of the leaked earlier this year— will show that the four degrees Celsius rise that we are currently careening towards will undoubtedly cause increasing natural disasters, including: more violent storms, forest fires, devastating droughts, flooding, widespread hunger, disease, and a rise in ocean levels by up to a meter.

              Sunset on the Arctic (Kathryn Hansen/ NASA Goddard Photo / Creative Commons license)

However, as Kaisa Kosonen explains on the Greenpeace blog Tuesday, the difference in their latest report from previous work by the IPCC and other similar warnings from the global scientific community is its emphasis on the stark "choice" now before humanity.

This latest message from the IPCC, Kosonen writes, is that people—both inside and outside of government— either "reduce and manage the risks ahead and do what’s needed to keep warming as far below 2 degrees Celsius as possible, or we continue to do too little too late, drifting from crisis to crisis and on towards a disastrous 4 degrees world."

"The IPCC will paint a picture of both these possible futures," Kosonen notes.

Over the course of this week the scientists will be finalizing a summary of the 2,000 page report directed at policy makers. The report and summary will be released Monday, March 31, following the week-long summit.

"I think everybody who works on the climate issue understands that climate change is truly one of the defining challenges of the 21st century," Chris Field, of the U.S.-based Carnegie Institution for Science, told the event's opening ceremony on Tuesday. However, said Field, the IPCC is "uniquely positioned" to enable policymakers to "deal effectively, robustly and optimistically with challenges for the future."

The IPCC report is the second installment of the group's Fifth Assessment Report—a four year project that has combined the work of thousands of scientists around the world.

The first installment, released in September, said warming in the climate system is "unequivocal" and the cause of current and future weather-related catastrophes.

"Today we are in a situation where governments have promised to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius but are heading instead towards a 4 degree world," writes Kosonen. "They are neither preparing for a 2 degree nor a 4 degree world, trying to ignore the megatrend of climate change."

"Will we continue drifting from one disaster to another, or will we take control of our future?" she asks.

"We're at a crossroads and the choices we make now will determine how history judges us."

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