Space Weather in Wartime: A Sunspot Detonates Naval Mines

Nov. 9, 2018: Rewind almost 50 years. On Aug. 2nd, 1972, giant sunspot MR11976 began to explode. For the next 2 days it unleashed a series of X-class flares, causing deep radio blackouts on Earth and punishing the solar panels and onboard electronics of satellites in Earth orbit. One CME (cloud of plasma) rocketed across the sun-Earth divide in only 14.6 hours–a record that still stands today. Resulting geomagnetic storms sparked auroras so bright, they cast shadows in countries as far south as Britian.

Above: Images of giant sunspot MR11976 from the Paris Observatory. [more]

The 1972 solar storm is legendary at NASA because it occurred in between two Apollo missions: the crew of Apollo 16 had returned to Earth in April and the crew of Apollo 17 was preparing for a moon landing in December. If the timing had only been a little different, astronauts could have been sickened by radiation, requiring an emergency return home for medical attention.

Turns out, it’s legendary in the Navy, too. According to a research paper just accepted for publication in the journal Space Weather, declassified Naval archives reveal an extraordinary explosion in the sea lanes near Vietnam: “On 4 August (1972) TF-77 aircraft reported some two dozen explosions in a minefield near Hon La over a 30-second time span…Ultimately the Navy concluded that the explosions had been caused by the magnetic perturbations of solar storms, the most intense in more than two decades.”

Above: A magnetogram from Manilla reveals unusual disturbances on Aug. 4-5, 1972. [more]

The authors, led by Delores Knipp of the University of Colorado, continue: “Aerial inspections revealed additional evidence of detonations elsewhere along the coast. The wartime memoirs of a US Navy Mineman-Sailor, Chief Petty Officer Michael Gonzales,state: ‘During the first few weeks of August, a series of extremely strong solar flares caused a fluctuation of the magnetic fields, in and around, South East Asia. The resulting chain of events caused the premature detonation of over 4,000 magnetically sensitive [mines].'”

This prompted the Navy to fast-track the replacement of magnetic-influence-only mines with mines that also required seismic or acoustic triggers during periods of high solar activity.

The August 1972 storms affected Earth in ways that are are only now being fully understood almost 50 years later. Moreover, Knipp and colleagues say the storms could be a previously-unrecognized example of an extreme Carrington-class event, and they urge further scrutiny. Given the experience of the US Navy, who can argue? Read the original research here.

The Chill of Solar Minimum

Sept. 27, 2018: The sun is entering one of the deepest Solar Minima of the Space Age. Sunspots have been absent for most of 2018, and the sun’s ultraviolet output has sharply dropped. New research shows that Earth’s upper atmosphere is responding.

“We see a cooling trend,” says Martin Mlynczak of NASA’s Langley Research Center. “High above Earth’s surface, near the edge of space, our atmosphere is losing heat energy. If current trends continue, it could soon set a Space Age record for cold.”


Above: The TIMED satellite monitoring the temperature of the upper atmosphere

These results come from the SABER instrument onboard NASA’s TIMED satellite. SABER monitors infrared emissions from carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitric oxide (NO), two substances that play a key role in the energy balance of air 100 to 300 kilometers above our planet’s surface. By measuring the infrared glow of these molecules, SABER can assess the thermal state of gas at the very top of the atmosphere–a layer researchers call “the thermosphere.”

“The thermosphere always cools off during Solar Minimum. It’s one of the most important ways the solar cycle affects our planet,” explains Mlynczak, who is the associate principal investigator for SABER.

When the thermosphere cools, it shrinks, literally decreasing the radius of Earth’s atmosphere. This shrinkage decreases aerodynamic drag on satellites in low-Earth orbit, extending their lifetimes. That’s the good news. The bad news is, it also delays the natural decay of space junk, resulting in a more cluttered environment around Earth.


Above: Layers of the atmosphere. Credit: NASA

To help keep track of what’s happening in the thermosphere, Mlynczak and colleagues recently introduced the “Thermosphere Climate Index” (TCI)–a number expressed in Watts that tells how much heat NO molecules are dumping into space. During Solar Maximum, TCI is high (“Hot”); during Solar Minimum, it is low (“Cold”).

“Right now, it is very low indeed,” says Mlynczak. “SABER is currently measuring 33 billion Watts of infrared power from NO. That’s 10 times smaller than we see during more active phases of the solar cycle.”

Although SABER has been in orbit for only 17 years, Mlynczak and colleagues recently calculated TCI going all the way back to the 1940s. “SABER taught us to do this by revealing how TCI depends on other variables such as geomagnetic activity and the sun’s UV output–things that have been measured for decades,” he explains.


Above: An historical record of the Thermosphere Climate Index. Mlynczak and colleagues recently published a paper on the TCI showing that the state of the thermosphere can be discussed using a set of five plain language terms: Cold, Cool, Neutral, Warm, and Hot.

As 2018 comes to an end, the Thermosphere Climate Index is on the verge of setting a Space Age record for Cold. “We’re not there quite yet,” says Mlynczak, “but it could happen in a matter of months.”

“We are especially pleased that SABER is gathering information so important for tracking the effect of the Sun on our atmosphere,” says James Russell, SABER’s Principal Investigator at Hampton University. “A more than 16-year record of long-term changes in the thermal condition of the atmosphere more than 70 miles above the surface is something we did not expect for an instrument designed to last only 3-years in-orbit.”

Soon, the Thermosphere Climate Index will be added to as a regular data feed, so our readers can monitor the state of the upper atmosphere just as researchers do. Stay tuned for updates.


Martin G. Mlynczak, Linda A. Hunt, James M. Russell, B. Thomas Marshall, Thermosphere climate indexes: Percentile ranges and adjectival descriptors, Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics,

Mlynczak, M. G., L. A. Hunt, B. T. Marshall, J. M. RussellIII, C. J. Mertens, R. E. Thompson, and L. L. Gordley (2015), A combined solar and geomagnetic index for thermospheric climate. Geophys. Res. Lett., 42, 3677–3682. doi: 10.1002/2015GL064038.

Mlynczak, M. G., L. A. Hunt, J. M. Russell III, B. T. Marshall, C. J. Mertens, and R. E. Thompson (2016), The global infrared energy budget of the thermosphere from 1947 to 2016 and implications for solar variability, Geophys. Res. Lett., 43, 11,934–11,940, doi: 10.1002/2016GL070965


Sunspots Vanishing Faster than Expected

May 1, 2018: Sunspots are becoming scarce. Very scarce. So far in 2018 the sun has been blank almost 60% of the time, with whole weeks going by without sunspots. Today’s sun, shown here in an image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, is typical of the featureless solar disk:


The fact that sunspots are vanishing comes as no surprise. Forecasters have been saying for years that this would happen as the current solar cycle (“solar cycle 24”) comes to an end. The surprise is how fast.

“Solar cycle 24 is declining more quickly than forecast,” announced NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center on April 26th. This plot shows observed sunspot numbers in blue vs. the official forecast in red:


“The smoothed, predicted sunspot number for April-May 2018 is about 15,” says NOAA. “However, the actual monthly values have been [significantly] lower.”

“Official” forecasts of the solar cycle come from NOAA’s Solar Cycle Prediction Panel–a group of experts from NOAA, NASA, the US Air Force, universities and other research organizations. They have been convening at intervals since 1989 to predict the timing and intensity of Solar Max. The problem is, no one really knows how to predict the solar cycle. The most recent iteration of the panel in 2006-2008 compared 54 different methods ranging from empirical extrapolations of historical data to cutting-edge supercomputer models of the sun’s magnetic dynamo. None fully described what is happening now.

It’s important to note that solar minimum is a normal part of the sunspot cycle. Sunspots have been disappearing (or nearly so) every ~11 years since 1843 when German astronomer Samuel Heinrich Schwabe discovered the periodic nature of solar activity. Sometimes they go away for decades, as happened during the Maunder Minimum of the 17th century.  We’ve seen it all before. Or have we….?


Researchers are keeping a wary eye on the sun now because of what happened the last time sunspots disappeared. The solar minimum of 2008-2009 was unusually deep. The sun set Space Age records for low sunspot number, weak solar wind, and depressed solar irradiance. When the sun finally woke up a few years later, it seemed to have “solar minimum hangover.” The bounce-back Solar Max of 2012-2015 was the weakest solar maximum of the Space Age, prompting some to wonder if solar activity is entering a  phase of sustained quiet. The faster-than-expected decline of the sunspot cycle now may support that idea.

Newcomers to the field are often surprised to learn that a lot happens during solar minimum: The sun dims, albeit slightly. NASA recently launched a new sensor (TSIS-1) to the International Space Station to monitor this effect. With less extreme UV radiation coming from the sun, Earth’s upper atmosphere cools and shrinks. This allows space junk to accumulate in low Earth orbit.

neutrons_stripAbove: A neutron bubble chamber in an airplane 35,000 feet above Greenland. and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus are flying these sensors to measure aviation radiation during solar minimum. [more]

The most important change, however, may be the increase in cosmic rays. Flagging solar wind pressure during solar minimum allows cosmic rays from deep space to penetrate the inner solar system. Right now, space weather balloons and NASA spacecraft are measuring an uptick in radiation due to this effect. Cosmic rays may alter the chemistry of Earth’s upper atmosphere, trigger lightning, and seed clouds.

Air travelers are affected, too. It is well known that cosmic rays penetrate airplanes. Passengers on long commercial flights receive doses similar to dental X-rays during a single trip, while pilots have been classified as occupational radiation workers by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP). Ongoing measurements by and Earth to Sky Calculus show that dose rates at cruising altitudes of 35,000 feet are currently ~40 times greater than on the ground below, values which could increase as the solar cycle wanes.

Solar minimum is just getting started. Stay tuned for updates.

The Sun is Dimming

Dec. 15, 2017: On Friday, Dec. 15th, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, SpaceX launched a new sensor to the International Space Station named TSIS-1. Its mission: to measure the dimming of the sun. As the sunspot cycle plunges toward its 11-year minimum, NASA satellites are tracking a decline in total solar irradiance (TSI). Across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, the sun’s output has dropped nearly 0.1% compared to the Solar Maximum of 2012-2014. This plot shows the TSI since 1978 as observed from nine previous satellites:

Click here for a complete explanation of this plot.

The rise and fall of the sun’s luminosity is a natural part of the solar cycle. A change of 0.1% may not sound like much, but the sun deposits a lot of energy on the Earth, approximately 1,361 watts per square meter. Summed over the globe, a 0.1% variation in this quantity exceeds all of our planet’s other energy sources (such as natural radioactivity in Earth’s core) combined. A 2013 report issued by the National Research Council (NRC), “The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate,” spells out some of the ways the cyclic change in TSI can affect the chemistry of Earth’s upper atmosphere and possibly alter regional weather patterns, especially in the Pacific.

NASA’s current flagship satellite for measuring TSI, the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE), is now more than six years beyond its prime-mission lifetime. TSIS-1 will take over for SORCE, extending the record of TSI measurements with unprecedented precision. It’s five-year mission will overlap a deep Solar Minimum expected in 2019-2020. TSIS-1 will therefore be able to observe the continued decline in the sun’s luminosity followed by a rebound as the next solar cycle picks up steam. Installing and checking out TSIS-1 will take some time; the first science data are expected in Feb. 2018. Stay tuned.

Sunspots Vanish, Space Weather Continues

Jan 11, 2017: So far in 2017, the big story in space weather is sunspots–or rather, the lack thereof. The sun has been blank more than 90% of the time.  Only one very tiny spot observed for a few hours on Jan. 3rd interrupted a string of spotless days from New Years through Jan. 11th. Devoid of dark cores, yesterday’s sun is typical of the year so far:

The last time the sun produced a similar string of spotless days was May of 2010, almost 7 years ago. That was near the end of the previous deep Solar Minimum.  The current stretch is a sign that Solar Minimum is coming again. Sunspot numbers rise and fall with an ~11-year period, slowly oscillating between Solar Max and Solar Min. In 2017, the pendulum is swinging toward the bottom.

Contrary to popular belief, space weather does not stop when sunspots vanish.  Recent nights are proof: Bright auroras have been dancing around the Arctic Circle. Tom Arne Moldenaes of Groetfjord, Norway, recorded this eruption (“like green lava from a volcano,” he says) on Jan. 5th when the face of the sun was completely spotless:

The auroras were sparked by a stream of solar wind flowing from a large hole in the sun’s atmosphere. Such “coronal holes” are common during Solar Minimum.

Sunspots are an important source of space weather. They can unleash solar flares, cause radio blackouts and geomagnetic storms. However, equally interesting things happen when sunspots vanish. For instance, the extreme ultraviolet output of the sun plummets. This causes the upper atmosphere of Earth to cool and collapse. With less air “up there” to cause orbital decay, space junk accumulates around our planet.

Also during Solar Minimum, the heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth. Galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system with relative ease. Indeed, a cosmic ray surge is already underway, with implications for astronauts and even ordinary air travelers.

Stay tuned for updates as we enter a new phase of the solar cycle.

Realtime Aurora Photo Gallery

Sunspot Cycle at Lowest Level in 5 Years

Nov. 15, 2016: The sun has looked remarkably blank lately, with few dark cores interrupting the featureless solar disk.  This is a sign that Solar Minimum is coming.  Indeed, sunspot counts have just reached their lowest level since 2011. With respect to the sunspot cycle, you are here:

The solar cycle is like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between periods of high and low sunspot number every 11 years. These data from NOAA show that the pendulum is swinging toward low sunspot numbers even faster than expected. (The red line is the forecast; black dots are actual measurements.). Given the current progression, forecasters expect the cycle to bottom out with a deep Solar Minimum in 2019-2020.

Solar Minimum is widely misunderstood.  Many people think it brings a period of dull quiet. In fact, space weather changes in interesting ways. For instance, as the extreme ultraviolet output of the sun decreases, the upper atmosphere of Earth cools and collapses. This allows space junk to accumulate around our planet. Also, the heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth; galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system and our atmosphere with relative ease. (More on this below.) Meanwhile, geomagnetic storms and auroras will continue–caused mainly by solar wind streams instead of CMEs. Indeed, Solar Minimum is coming, but it won’t be dull.

COSMIC RAYS CONTINUE TO INTENSIFY: As the sunspot cycle declines, we expect cosmic rays to increase. Is this actually happening? The answer is “yes.” and the students of Earth to Sky Calculus have been monitoring radiation levels in the stratosphere with frequent high-altitude balloon flights over California. Here are the latest results, current as of Nov. 11, 2016:

Data show that cosmic ray levels are intensifying with an 11% increase since March 2015.

Cosmic rays are high-energy photons and subatomic particles accelerated in our direction by distant supernovas and other violent events in the Milky Way. Usually, cosmic rays are held at bay by the sun’s magnetic field, which envelops and protects all the planets in the Solar System. But the sun’s magnetic shield is weakening as the solar cycle shifts from Solar Max to Solar Minimum. As the sunspot cycle goes down, cosmic rays go up.

The sensors we send to the stratosphere measure X-rays and gamma-rays which are produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth’s atmosphere. In this way we are able to track increasing levels of radiation. The increase is expected to continue for years to come as solar activity plunges toward a deep Solar Minimum in 2019-2020.

Recently, we have expanded the scope of our measurements beyond California with launch sites in three continents: North America, South America and soon above the Arctic Circle in Europe. This Intercontinental Space Weather Balloon Network will allow us to probe the variable protection we receive from Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere as a function of location around the globe.

The Solar Cycle is Crashing

by Dr. Tony Phillips  of

Anyone wondering why the sun has been so quiet lately? The reason may be found in the graph below. The 11-year sunspot cycle is crashing:

For the past two years, the sunspot number has been dropping as the sun transitions from Solar Max to Solar Min. Fewer sunspots means there are fewer solar flares and fewer coronal mass ejections (CMEs). As these explosions subside, we deem the sun “quiet.”

But how quiet is it, really?

A widely-held misconception is that space weather stalls and becomes uninteresting during periods of low sunspot number. In fact, by turning the solar cycle sideways, we see that Solar Minimum brings many interesting changes. For instance, the upper atmosphere of Earth collapses, allowing space junk to accumulate around our planet. The heliosphere shrinks, bringing interstellar space closer to Earth. And galactic cosmic rays penetrate the inner solar system with relative ease. Indeed, a cosmic ray surge is already underway. (Goodbye sunspots, hello deep-space radiation.)

Stay tuned for updates as the sunspot number continues to drop.