The Sun Is Way More Active Than It Should Be Before Its Big Solar Peak

Solar activity is increasing faster than official forecasts had predicted, data appears to show, and experts predict a stronger solar cycle than in previous years.

Scientists are constantly tracking the sun's behavior over time, since it is the source of space weather that can potentially cause massive disruption.

This space weather takes the form of solar flares and coronal mass ejections—essentially eruptions of radiation and particles from the sun—which can interfere with electrical systems on Earth and cause shimmering auroras in the sky.

Thanks to developments in technology we can predict when such disruptions might occur. One way scientists do this is by observing the sun with special instruments and looking out for sunpots—dark areas in the sun's atmosphere that signal the presence of a particularly strong magnetic field in that region.

Solar activity
The flash of a solar flare is seen coming from a sunspot in this image taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in November, 2014. Solar activity can cause space weather that may disrupt electronics on Earth. NASA/SDO

If that magnetic field suddenly realigns, vast clouds of charged particles are shot into space. This is typically marked by a flash of light called a solar flare, which can give us a few days' warning of an incoming cloud of particles.

Solar activity predictions are also aided by the solar cycle—a roughly 11-year-long period in which the sun goes from a period of low activity to a period of high activity and back down again. The activity of these cycles is measured by the number of sunspots we observe.

The sun is currently in the early stages of what scientists call its 25th cycle, meaning we can expect activity to keep increasing for a few more years. However, according to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Space Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center, the activity of the current cycle appears well ahead of predictions.

Solar cycle
A screenshot from the Space Weather Prediction Center website that shows the current solar cycle. The number of observed sunspots appears to be increasing faster than the red prediction line. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Space Weather Prediction Center

Robert von Fay-Siebenburgen, professor of mathematics and a space plasma researcher at the University of Sheffield in the U.K., told Newsweek that he thinks the current number sunspots are within expectations when taking some errors into account. Others are not too sure.

"The observations of sunspot numbers are certainly tracking higher than the official forecasts," Mathew Owens, professor of space physics at the University of Reading in the U.K., told Newsweek: "I think at least some of this is from getting the timing of the cycle start wrong. If you push the official forecast back 6 months—which is not an unreasonable thing to do, as the forecast was focussed on magnitude, rather than timing—it agrees pretty well."

Andrew Coates, professor of physics at University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, echoed the point that the sunspot number is higher than predicted.

He told Newsweek: "The predictions are based on the last cycle or two, which had unusually low activity and long solar minima, so this may be a sign that the Sun is waking up, becoming more active again—part of the normal variation in solar activity."

Normal variations or not, there have been predictions that the 25th solar cycle will be more active than previous cycles have been. Exactly how much more active remains to be seen.

"It is expected that the solar cycle that is coming now is going to be a stronger solar cycle, so you have more and more solar activity," said von Fay-Siebenburgen. This might not have been a problem 100 years ago, he said, when humanity wasn't relying on electrical technology so much. Today it is another story.

"These days, even a coffee maker—at least a more expensive one—does have a chip in it… I think we really should be careful and prepare ourselves for the next solar cycle because I think the more we rely on technology the more vulnerable we are to these sunspots."