At the annual Space Weather Workshop held in Boulder, Colorado last month
The panel predicted that the lowest sunspot number between cycles -- the solar minimum -- occurred in December 2008, marking the end of Solar Cycle 23 and the start of Solar Cycle 24. If December's prediction holds up
An unusually long, deep lull in sunspots led the panel to revise its 2007 prediction that the next cycle of solar storms would start in March 2008 and peak in late 2011 or mid-2012. The persistence of a quiet sun also led the panel to a consensus that Solar Cycle 24 will be what they called "moderately weak."
Although the peak is still four years away, a new active period of Earth-threatening solar storms will be the weakest since 1928. Despite the prediction, the scientists said that Earth is still vulnerable to a severe solar storm. Solar storms are eruptions of energy and matter that escape from the Sun and may head toward Earth, where even a weak storm can damage satellites and power grids, disrupting communications, the electric power supply and GPS. A single strong blast of "solar wind" can threaten national security, transportation, financial services and otheressential functions.
The most common measure of a solar cycle's intensity is the number of sunspots -- Earth-sized blotches on the sun marking areas of heightened magnetic activity. The more sunspots there are, the more likely it is that solar storms will occur, but a major storm can occur at any time.
"As with hurricanes, whether a cycle is active or weak refers to the number of storms, but everyone needs to remember it only takes one powerful storm to cause huge problems," said NOAA scientist Doug Biesecker, who chaired the panel. "The strongest solar storm on record occurred in 1859 during another below-average cycle." The 1859 storm shorted out telegraph wires, causing fires in North America and Europe and sent readings of Earth's magnetic field soaring. It also producednorthern lights so bright that people read newspapers by their light, he said.
Biesecker cited a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences that found if a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause $1-2 trillion in damages the first year and require four to 10 years for recovery, compared to the $80-125 billion of damage that resulted from Hurricane Katrina
The Space Weather Prediction Center is part of the National Weather Service and is one of the nine National Centers for Environmental Prediction. It is the nation's official source of space weather alerts, watches and warnings. SWPC provides real-time monitoring and forecasting of solar and geophysical events that impact satellites, power grids, communications, navigation and many other technological systems.