Pharos-Tribune

Opinion

September 20, 2013

PETERS: The sun is switching poles

(Continued)

“It’s not surprising that the sun has cycles,” Allen said. “But our sun is pretty darn stable compared to other stars.”

That stability may have played a part in making it possible for earliest life to get off the ground and go to town.

“But that’s really quite speculative,” Allen said.

What was the north pole of the sun has actually already become a south pole. That means that at the moment the sun has two south poles.

“Presumably that configuration is unstable,” Allen explained. “It will likely change soon and the poles will be fully reversed.”

The changes the sun is going through mean the sun is producing more cosmic rays. That translates into more impressive shows of the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) which you may see lighting up portions of the night sky on clear nights. Once, riding sleepless on a Greyhound bus across North Dakota I saw the whole night sky lit up by the Northern Lights – it’s a show you don’t ever forget if once you see a really good example of it.

But there’s an important point about the sun’s cycles that goes beyond entertaining light shows. Variations in the sun’s output of heat that goes along with changing numbers of sunspots appears to be one factor that can change climate here on Earth. The 11-year solar cycle, for example, shows up in the evidence of tree ring widths in the American southwest, presumably because the solar cycle is a factor controlling precipitation.

“The link to climate is speculative but also potentially very important,” Allen said. “I knew you’d ask me about it,” he added with a laugh.

To measure how much solar energy is actually absorbed by the Earth over time, NASA developed the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR). It’s designed to stay between the Earth and the sun, always “looking” at the sunlit side of the Earth and measuring energy absorption over time and in different regions.

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