It’s Quiet… Too Quiet.

Do you know what makes running a space weather blog easier? Space weather. Like, space weather actually happening.

Guess what’s not happening?  Space weather.  

That is, of course, and exaggeration.  Just like weather on the Earth, space weather is always happening.  Just like on Earth, however, when things are calm and boring, you are less likely to get cool news stories.  

This has been exactly the case with space weather.  The only events that we have observed in the past month or so are from coronal holes.  These are regions on the sun where the solar wind is faster than other places.  The fast solar wind catches up to the slow solar wind on the way to the Earth and compresses up against it.  This is similar to when you’re driving to work, and the slow guy in the fast lane causes ten cars to impatiently bunch up together.  When this bunched-up solar wind arrives at Earth, it creates a small space weather storm.  These types of events are boring and very easy to predict: given a slowly changing Sun, a single coronal hole (the source of fast solar wind) will create a space weather storm every 27 days, which is the time it takes for the Sun to rotate once.

To make things more interesting, we need solar active regions, or sunspots, to spice things up.  Sun spots are small regions on the Sun’s surface where the Sun’s magnetic field and particles are active and unstable.  They are the source of real space weather storms. 

The major problem for interesting space weather is that there are no sunspots.  None!

Images from the Solar Dynamic Observatory showing that Sun spots are on spring break.

This story from NASA has all the details, but the gist of it is that we are currently in a stretch of such weak solar activity that there are no observable sunspots.  The Sun has an activity cycle of 11 years.  We are right in the middle of solar minimum of Cycle 24, one of the most boring solar cycles in recorded history.  The cycle has hit an activity level of zero.  This is so boring that it wraps over and becomes interesting again.

Periods like this are sparse but not unheard of.  There have been long stretches of boring, notably, the Maunder Minimum of the late 1600s and early 1700s.  To be clear, we are not anywhere near that level of inactivity.  Indeed, if you wander over to the Solar Dynamics Observatory data site, you can see that sunspots have already returned.  However, the increasing amount of boring has led some scientists to wonder if we’re not heading into a new prolonged period of solar boring.  This would be especially exciting for solar physicists, who work to understand the solar dynamo.  For space weather, however, it would just be… boring.