Thursday, July 3, 2008

New Solar Cycle Not Packing Much Punch

New Solar Cycle Not Packing Much Punch

Many solar scientists expected the new sunspot cycle to be a whopper, a prolonged solar tantrum that could fry satellites and raise hell with earthly communications, the power grid and modern electronics.

But there's scant proof Sunspot Cycle 24 is even here, let alone the debut of big trouble.

So far there have been just a couple minor zits on the face of the sun to suggest the old cycle is over and the new one is coming.

The roughly 11-year cycle of sunspot activity should have bottomed out last year, the end of Cycle 23 and the beginning of Cycle 24. That would have put the peak in new sunspot activity around 2012.

But a dud sunspot cycle would not necessarily make it a boring period, especially for two solar scientists with the Tucson-based National Solar Observatory.

Two years ago, William Livingston and Matt Penn wrote a paper for the journal Science predicting that this could not only be a dud sunspot cycle, but the start of another extended down period in solar activity. It was based on their analysis of weakening sunspot intensity and said sunspots might vanish by 2015.

And here's the punch line: That last long-term down period, 1645-1715, coincided with the Little Ice Age, a period of bitter cold winters.

That kind of talk could ruffle some feathers in this time of climate change and global warming, starring man-made carbon dioxide as the devil.

The paper, rejected in peer review, was never published by Science. Livingston said he's OK with the rejection.

"I accept what the reviewers said," Livingston said. "'If you are going to make such statement, you had better have strong evidence.' "

Livingston said their projections were based on observations of a trend in decreasingly powerful sunspots but reviewers felt it was merely a statistical argument.

He is aware that some opponents of the prevailing position that climate change and global warming are the result of manmade activity -- greenhouse gas, specifically carbon dioxide, buildup -- are very much interested in the idea that changes might be related to solar activity.

"But it has not been proven yet," cautioned Livingston, an astronomer emeritus who still works out of an office at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory headquarters building on the University of Arizona campus.

"We may have to wait. We may be wrong. (But) the sun is going to entertain us one way or another," he said.

It's not just a scientific curiosity. There's a lot at stake in predicting whether sunspot cycles are going to be tame or wild, said Matt Penn of the National Solar Observatory.

The powerful blasts of radiation that come from solar activity can fry electronic equipment on Earth; particularly vulnerable are satellites.

The high-energy radiation produced by solar flares travels at near the speed of light, getting to Earth in just minutes.

But the magnetic effects of a solar flare can take between two and three days to reach Earth, said Penn, a solar scientist.

In the 1800s, magnetic blasts from intense solar activity induced currents in telegraph lines in the U.S. and Italy, starting fires and damaging equipment. Later, it was learned that solar activity affected radio transmission.

It can also affect the electrical-power grid. A solar tantrum in 1989 blew transformers and caused a blackout in Canada. And a number of satellites are thought to have failed from exposure to high-energy blasts from solar activity.

Satellite operators can turn them away or shut down vulnerable equipment aboard, and astronauts can use shielding to avoid those blasts.

If Cycle 24 is the big cycle predicted, Penn said, "it's likely we'll have geomagnetic storms with a lot of sunspots, a lot of flares on the sun."

Penn said even so-called "quiet sun" periods are far from boring because the sun's "surface consists of Texas-sized hot gas bubbles, which rise upward at a speed of about a mile per second. The gas cools and falls downward in narrower channels at about the same speed. That's what we call the 'quiet sun.'"

"As we get more into the space environment with satellites, GPS and communication satellites, it means money. People who are about to launch new communication satellites really want to know how much shielding to put on their satellites.

"But shielding amounts to weight, which is money. If they want them to last through (an intense cycle), they're going to want to protect them more, and that will cost them more."

Penn is the telescope scientist on the McMath-Pierce solar telescope, the strange angular white thing amid all the white and silver-domed things atop Kitt Peak. Specifically, Penn works with an instrument that "sees" in the infrared range to provide information about magnetic activity.

Sometimes, sunspot activity is more than theory or data to him.

Several years ago, he was making an early-morning run from Tucson up to Kitt Peak to do some solar observing. He noticed his gas gauge was dangerously low and decided to stop for gas at the convenience store in Three Points.

It was about 5 a.m., and no one was there to take cash, so he tried to use his credit card to gas up. But the pay-at-the-pump system was down.

Crossing his fingers and driving up the mountain, Penn said he hoped he'd have enough gas after work to make it back to the station on the way home.

When he got to work, he learned that "a communications satellite had been damaged by (a solar flare). Lots of communications were dropped that morning, and my credit-card pay-at-the-pump attempt was one of them."

Though Aimee Norton appreciates the practical benefits of being able to predict the sun's activity, solving some of the star's mysteries that relate to the big picture are more compelling. Norton is a program scientist on the solar observatory's SOLIS (Synoptic Optical Long-term Investigations of the Sun) facility at Kitt Peak.

"Part of what we're trying to understand is how the magnetic field regulates or moderates the energy that is transported in the atmosphere," Norton said. "Because one of the mysteries of the sun is, it's hotter in the upper atmosphere than (at the surface). So there is energy being transported. Some people think the magnetic field is somehow magically getting that energy out there."

Norton said she's hoping for a powerful cycle, noting, "It would give us more things to do research with -- either that or no cycle at all, which would be similar to the Maunder Minimum."

She said she figures there's little chance of a completely dead cycle but added, "Wouldn't that be fascinating if the solar system managed to offset our contribution?"

Because you can't go


Seiche Strikes Chicago Lakeshore

For the second time in a month, the Chicago lakeshore has experienced a seiche. The word is Swiss French and means "to sway back and forth." The results can be deadly for waders along beaches of southern Lake Michigan, who can only see this danger as a frequent fluctuation of lakeshore water. Worldwide, there are various reasons for its creation. But for Lake Michigan, it always results from a thunderstorm or line of storms crossing Lake Michigan. Decaying thunderstorm processes will usually result in a strong pressure rise ahead of the decaying storm.

Since water is fluid, this rapid rise in pressure will push a large area of lake water downward and out. This can occur often over the lake. But to arrive at the Chicago lakeshore and start an oscillation going, the pressure rise will need to have occurred over Lake Michigan at a location north of Milwaukee. The resulting outward flowing crest then travels southeast to the west Michigan lakeshore, before rebounding southwest to the Chicago lakeshore.

Lake water rises of 1 to 2 feet are most common but have been known to go much higher. Most prominent in Chicago history is the 1954 seiche that occurred on June 26th. Eight fishermen were swept away in a 10 foot seiche as they worked along the breakwaters. While most seiches appear only as a fluctuation of high and low tides, an actual wave was visible with this monster seiche of 1954. Clues to their presence are only received at the National Weather Service via alert and cognizant observers on the Michigan or Chicago lakeshore.

The oscillation frequency between high and low water is usually 20 to 30 minutes. Gravity eventually takes charge and dampens the fluctuation extremes with time. Thus it may take many hours before the seiche subsides completely. This, in turn, depends on the severity of the seiche.

Hurricane Boris Says Hello a Month Late

Hurricane Season Started June First ByIt is always nice to get the first hurricane of the season -- this one is Hurricane Boris -- out of the way especially when, for all intensive purposes it is of a mild nature and apparently presents no threat to land. The hurricane, dubbed "Hurricane Boris" got its start over the weekend as a tropical storm and as it moved into the Pacific Ocean and away from land it developed into a category one level hurricane.

For those of you not familiar with Hurricane categorization, hurricanes are rated from class one to class five with five being the strongest. I recall David Letterman many years ago, when he was a weatherman in Indianapolis, congratulating a hurricane on its promotion from tropical storm; perhaps we can recount the joke here many times we wouldn't be able to. Most attention is paid to the Atlantic since that is where the majority of storms start and where, and then the majorities of hurricanes develop and come to land. In the States that is most often Florida and surrounding states.

What does this year look like? I could almost have told you that it was going to be a volatile year just by the weather in my state and we are never close to a hurricane. This is July 1st, and we are still not seeing warm and hot weather on any kind of a regular basis. That is the report from those "in the know"; it will be a hard year for hurricanes. In fact, there is a greater than 50% chance that we will have a rugged season. How would one go about defining a "rugged season"? Well, according to the Climate Prediction center there may be over a dozen hurricanes with the majority of them defined as worse than average.

For now, however, Hurricane Boris has weakened with winds at about 75 miles per hour. As I said, I don't live in a "hurricane community". However, for those people who do battle hurricanes every year, I'm reasonably sure Hurricane Boris has not gone unnoticed. Actually he is a little late since hurricane season starts June 1st. Probably the rest to the year, we'll be looking Southeast, not West. References:

Chertoff Says Country Ready for Hurricane Season, but Wonders if Individuals Are

While the nation may be prepared for this year’s hurricane season, questions remain about individual readiness, says Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

“I think the country is prepared,” Chertoff said Tuesday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Hurricane Awareness Day. “I think the big question is are individuals taking steps they need on a family basis to get prepared.”

And the country’s overall readiness for the hurricane season should not be taken as a sign that there won’t be difficulties associated with a major hurricane, Chertoff noted.

“Obviously, any major hurricane, Category 3 or above, is going to be a bad event, and it’s going to cause hardship and distress and may cause loss of life,” he said. “Our planning, our capabilities are much better now than they’ve ever been before at the federal level. I believe at the state level, particularly in the Gulf states they are better than they’ve ever been before. The key element though, the cornerstone has got to be that individual preparation.”

Chertoff emphasized that because the past two years have been quiet hurricane-wise doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be prepared.

“If people are lulled into a sense of complacency because 2006 and 2007 didn’t produce a major hurricane in the [United States] and they don’t do the preparation that we’ve recommended, then there is going to be a problem,” he said. “If people do take what I think are pretty reasonable steps, I think that’s going to be the most important and certainly the final piece that has to be in place.”

Chertoff said some steps that families should take include knowing where they will go during an evacuation, having a supply of food, water and medicine, a battery-operated radio and making sure they have gasoline in the their cars when a hurricane watch or warning is announced.

“Getting all of these steps in place, the emergency preparedness kit, the plan and listening to direction is the cornerstone of hurricane preparedness,” he said.

Chertoff said DHS is working with its Ready campaign and the Ad Council and will launch “new public service announcements designed to get people to focus on the simple, but necessary steps they need to take to be ready for hurricane season.”

Chertoff isn’t the only one concerned about individual preparedness.

“Our surveys show that only 7 percent of the American public is ready [with] a plan for a disaster,” said Mary S. Elcano, acting president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross, who participated in the event. “Only 7 percent have taken the steps necessary to prepare and our view is that in every disaster, every individual and family should consider themselves to be ... the real first-responders. It’s time to get prepared.”

Larry J. Gispert, director of Hillsborough County, Fla., Emergency Management and president of the International Association of Emergency Managers, doesn’t think the “country is ever ready for any hurricane season” and said individual preparedness is the country’s “weakest” link in this area.

“Individual readiness is the biggest part of the whole formula and that’s where we are the weakest,” Gispert said. “We cannot force these citizens to be prepared. They must do that on their own.”

Gispert said most citizens don’t take the threat of hurricanes seriously. “So as a consequence, we can never be ready to respond if the citizens do not listen and will not heed our warnings and as a consequence evacuate when we ask them to,” he said.

But Gispert, who wasn’t at the forum, does think the country is better off now than it was during Hurricane Katrina. He said government agencies from the local to federal level are generally “getting better prepared,” but still aren’t ready.

Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said FEMA is doing its job to get the country prepared and he’d like to see local and state governments “spending more time like we do in Florida talking about hurricane season.”

“My biggest concern is the public is still too apathetic and doesn’t take responsibility to be a survivor and plays the victim game,” he said.

Daniel Fowler can be reached at


Reader's eye on the Riverdance Ferry

SO what will you point your lens at now?

Rapid progress is being made to cut up beached ferry Riverdance – with parts of the stern and bow section being removed from the beach at Anchorsholme.

Riverdance reader pictures- Jason Connolly

The ship has attracted thousands of people to the coast since it ran aground on February 1 during a storm. Emergency services managed to get all crew and passengers safely off the vessel.

And ever since Gazette readers have snapped away, taking hundreds of superb shots of the Seatruck's vessel which is now destined for the scrap metal merchants.

Many have captured the drama of the doomed refloating exercise, some show how the ship gradually sank into the sands, while others, as seen here, went for a humorous take.

Soon the photo opportunity and tourist attraction will be no more.
Demotion work, being carried out between tides, is due to be completed by the end of June.