Why can’t we have nice things anymore? If you’re referring to the Northern and Southern Lights and the new study that predicts they may disappear in all parts of the world where they’re seen except at the North and South Poles, blame the sun.
Researchers at the University of Reading in Berkshire, UK, have been monitoring and modeling solar activity, especially solar winds and sunspots, and noticed indications that these activities show signs they are about to take a dramatic downturn in frequency. This decrease and subsequent increase is cyclic and doesn’t mean there’s anything bad happening with the sun, but it’s not good news for those enjoying the aurora borealis (northern lights) and the aurora australis (southern lights).
The magnetic activity of the sun ebbs and flows in predictable cycles, but there is also evidence that it is due to plummet, possibly by the largest amount for 300 years. If so, the Northern Lights phenomenon would become a natural show exclusive to the polar regions, due to a lack of solar wind forces that often make it visible at lower latitudes.
Dr. Mathew Owens from the University of Reading's Meteorology department, who led the study published in Science Reports, is referring to the last big drop in solar winds and the sunspots that cause them in the 17th century, which resulted in what is known as the Maunder Minimum, also referred to as the ‘prolonged sunspot minimum’ or ‘little ice age’. Named for married solar astronomers Annie Russell and E. Walter Maunder, who studied how sunspot latitudes changed with time, the Maunder Minimum occurred from about 1645 to 1715 and coincided with a long-term temperature drop (there are some experts who disagree that these are related), particularly in the UK, where the always-flowing River Thames regularly froze over. For those outside of England, the major consequence of the Maunder Minimum was the disappearance of the auroras.
Let's say you don’t live in England or in an area where you can see the auroras anyway. Should you be worried about the return of the Maunder Minimum? Yes and no, according to Dr. Owens. This is 2017, not 1645, so a reduction in sunspots and solar winds is good news for our electrical infrasture, satellite communications systems and other things that get disrupted by this activity.
However, it’s bad news for the solar system, which we’re also a part of. Solar wind pushes plasma out to beyond Pluto, forming a heliosphere that protects the solar system from harmful interstellar cosmic rays like those produced by supernovae. Without this heliospheric bubble, Earth and the other planets get hit on the backside with cosmic radiation, eventually causing the same kinds of disruptions as the full frontal blasts from the sun.
What does all this mean? The predicted upcoming reduction in solar wind is bad news for aurora fans, good news for cellphone and GPS users, bad news for those who like warm weather, good news for astronauts on the ISS and bad news somewhere in the future for the rest of the solar system.
Send all complaints and thank-you notes to the sun.