Every so often, we go through changes in life that can be quite confusing. Puberty, marriage, childbirth, zombification, or what have you; they’re all extremely personal and draw from our experiences as human beings. And then there are some things so far beyond our control that it seems ridiculous, such as the sun’s magnetic poles changing places, which Stanford University solar physicist Todd Hoeksema says we get to look forward to before the year’s end probably. Even though I write for this website, I don’t pretend to be an expert in anything but terrible puns, and I wasn’t even aware that something like this could happen, much less that it happens on a fairly consistent basis. Now I’ve got the perfect icebreaker for non-science parties.
Hoeksema is the director of Stanford’s NASA-supported Wilcox Solar Observatory, which began keeping a lensed eye on the sun’s magnetic field back in 1976, and it has witnessed four such polarity flips, which occur every 11 years or so, when the sun’s inner magnetic system reverts itself. This particular change will mark the midpoint of Solar Cycle 24, for those counting.
“The sun’s polar magnetic fields weaken, go to zero and then emerge again with the opposite polarity,” says fellow Stanford solar physicist Phil Scherrer. “This is a regular part of the solar cycle.” Well, if it’s so regular, it must not be a very big deal, right? As if anything involving our mother star isn’t a big deal.
The sun’s magnetic influence stretches out beyond Pluto and to the furthest reaches of our solar system, and even though it only produces produces a small electrical current (which is reportedly one ten-billionth of an amp per square meter), it flows over an area thousands of kilometers thick and billions of kilometers wide.
Then there’s talk about the “current sheet,” which sort of flies over my head, both literally and figuratively. The current sheet spreads outward from the sun’s equator, where the electrical current is created by the rotating magnetic field. Once the reversals are occurring, the sheet gets wavy, and is compared to the seams around a baseball, and it is spread across the solar system. Take a look at the picture below to get a better idea.
You see where Earth is in there? Luckily, the sheet impedes upon the cosmic rays that are affected by the sun’s transitions. So we probably don’t have anything to worry about once the pole flip happens later in the next three or four months. Probably. Maybe we should build a few deflectors just in case.
Check out the NASA video below to get a better handle on how all this works, and remember to always keep an eye on the sky.