The sun flips out

Solar magnetic field set to reverse as cycle comes to an end.


Hold on to your tin-foil hats – the Sun’s immense magnetic field is about to reverse. Naturally, this will lead to all sorts of devastation and mayhem here on Earth, right? Well, no. Unless you’re a solar physicist you won’t even know it has happened.

The Sun’s magnetic backflip is a frequent event, part of a regular cycle of solar activity lasting about 11 years. Late 2013 will see the Sun reach the “solar maximum” of its current cycle: its magnetic field will flip, the number of dark sunspots dotted across its surface will reach its peak and large solar flares can occur.

Solar flares are explosive eruptions of electromagnetic radiation and ionised gases that reach Earth within hours and, on rare occasions, create havoc. In 1989 a big flare blew the power grid in Quebec, Canada, causing a nine-hour blackout. The whopper recorded in 1859 was even larger, and disrupted telegraph systems across America and Northern Europe.

Thankfully, as solar maximums go, this year’s is a very weak one. So it is probably safe to don party hats and instead celebrate the beginning of the new solar cycle.

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