Using a new computer model of the Sun, scientists have begun work on a groundbreaking forecast of the next cycle of sunspots. Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) announced new research leading to an improved forecast of cycle 24 at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Denver. Predicting features of the solar cycle may help society anticipate sunspots and associated solar storms, which can disrupt communications and power systems and expose astronauts to high amounts of radiation.
A map of observed solar magnetic fields from the National Solar Observatory (top) correlates closely with a new NCAR model. Both images show the longitudinal averages of the fields. NCAR scientists are using the Predictive Flux-transport Dynamo Model to make predictions about solar cycle 24, which will probably begin about 2007 to 2008. (Image courtesy Mausumi Dikpati, Giuliana de Toma, Peter Gilman, and Oran White, all of NCAR; and Charles Arge of CU-Boulder and NOAA.)
The forecast draws on research by scientists at NCARs High Altitude Observatory indicating that the evolution of sunspots is caused by a current of plasma, or electrified gas, that circulates between the Suns equator and its poles over a number of years. The forecasters believe the next solar cycle will begin in 2007 to 2008 if the plasma circulation, which has slowed down during the present solar cycle, continues to decelerate. That would mean cycle 24 would begin about a half-year later than if the cycles followed the standard 11-year span.
“We will spend the next several months incorporating additional plasma flow data into our model to determine the rising pattern of cycle 24,” explains Dikpati, a leader of the research team. “Our focus will be on when the cycle is likely to reach maximum and cause geomagnetic storms in Earth’s atmosphere.”
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