For anyone interested in astronomy, you’d probably understand the ups & downs of our home star, the Sun. So when I talk about the solar cycles, minimum and maximum, we’re on the same page right?
Well for those of you who aren’t familar, the Sun has phases in which sunspot activity rises and falls. These phases are call the solar maximum and minimum, respectively. During the maximun, the sun is booming with activity. The most notable activity during that time being the visible sunspots. Sun spots are darker areas on the surface of the sun, nobody knows anything about them, at all. No I’m only kidding, we know all about that stuff. If you want to know for yourself, check out the wiki page on them.
Anyway, so during a solar minimum, as the name implies, sunspot and other solar activity is diminished. The phases generally run like clockwork. Except for our most recent solar minimum. It had extending much longer than anticipated. This solar minimum has been the longest and most eerily quiet solar minimum in years. Scientists around the world have been huddled around computers saying “any minute now” for awhile now, and they’re getting tired, so they sent Dibyendu Nandi and his team to figure out what happened.
“According to our model, the trouble with sunspots actually began in back in the late 1990s during the upswing of Solar Cycle 23,” says co-author Andrés Muñoz-Jaramillo of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “At that time, the conveyor belt sped up.”
The conveyer belt he’s referring to is this:
For years, solar physicists have recognized the importance of the sun’s “Great Conveyor Belt.” A vast system of plasma currents called ‘meridional flows’ (akin to ocean currents on Earth) travel along the sun’s surface, plunge inward around the poles, and pop up again near the sun’s equator. These looping currents play a key role in the 11-year solar cycle.
So what does this all mean? Well it means this:
The sun spots of the last solar maximum looped back around under the surface of the Sun and, because of the speed-up, they were moved through the inner parts of the sun too rapidly to become full-fledged sunspots again.
Then, in the next cycle around the year 2000, the sunspots were so depleted that even though the conveyer belt had slowed, the sun couldn’t produce much in the way of sunspots. The ones that did poke through the surface were puny and laughable. I heard Mercury was laughing so hard that they quickly cowered back under the surface of the sun to hide from Mercury’s onslaught of insults.
With the speedy belts, and Mercury’s one-line zingers,
“The stage was set for the deepest solar minimum in a century,” says co-author Petrus Martens of the Montana State University Department of Physics.
So now you’re probably thinking something like this: “OMG, 2012! iTz all gon be badz. Nobody suRvivERzZz!!! Well you’re wrong, as Dibyendu Nandi so eloquently demonstrates:
Nandi notes that their new computer model explained not only the absence of sunspots but also the sun’s weakened magnetic field in [2008 and 2009]. “It’s confirmation that we’re on the right track.”
So there you have it kids. You’ll still have school on Monday. No looting at the local Best Buy. Our Sun will be just fine.
…. Or so we’re lead to believe.