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An important puzzle from the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center

10 May 2009

Read these versions of the new NOAA press release about Solar Cycle 24, released with fanfare by the media.  How quickly can you spot the actual message?  Here is a brief version, then a longer one, then the full text.

NOAA Predicts Solar Cycle 24“, press release, 8 May 2009 — Version #1 (excerpt):

A new active period of Earth-threatening solar storms … devastating solar storm at any time … damages from the most severe level of storm exceeding $1 trillion. … eruptons … even a weak storm can damage satellites and power grids, disrupting communications, the electric power supply and GPS … threaten national security, transportation, financial services and other essential functions. … only takes one powerful storm to cause expensive problems … fires in North America and Europe … cause $1-2 trillion in damages the first year and require 4 to 10 years for recovery … every hiccup from the sun aimed at Earth has potential consequences.”

Version #2:

… Earth could get hit by a devastating solar storm at any time, with potential damages from the most severe level of storm exceeding $1 trillion. … Solar storms are eruptions of energy and matter that escape from the sun and may head toward Earth, where even a weak storm can damage satellites and power grids, disrupting communications, the electric power supply and GPS. A single strong blast of solar wind can threaten national security, transportation, financial services and other essential functions.

… “As with hurricanes, whether a cycle is active or weak refers to the number of storms, but everyone needs to remember it only takes one powerful storm to cause expensive problems,” said NOAA scientist Doug Biesecker, who chairs the panel.

… A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause $1-2 trillion in damages the first year and require four to ten years for recovery, compared to $80-125 billion that resulted from Hurricane Katrina.

… “Our customer growth reflects today’s reality that all sectors of society are highly dependent on advanced, space-based technologies,” said SWPC director Tom Bogdan. “Today every hiccup from the sun aimed at Earth has potential consequences.”

Version #3 (red emphasis added):

A new active period of Earth-threatening solar storms will be the weakest since 1928 and its peak is still four years away, after a slow start last December, predicts an international panel of experts led by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. Even so, Earth could get hit by a devastating solar storm at any time, with potential damages from the most severe level of storm exceeding $1 trillion. NASA funds the prediction panel.

Solar storms are eruptions of energy and matter that escape from the sun and may head toward Earth, where even a weak storm can damage satellites and power grids, disrupting communications, the electric power supply and GPS. A single strong blast of solar wind can threaten national security, transportation, financial services and other essential functions.

The panel predicts the upcoming Solar Cycle 24 will peak in May 2013 with a daily sunspot number of 90. If the prediction proves true, Solar Cycle 24 will be the weakest cycle since number 16, which peaked at 78 daily sunspots in 1928, and ninth weakest since the 1750s, when numbered cycles began.

The most common measure of a solar cycle’s intensity is the number of sunspots — Earth-sized blotches on the sun marking areas of heightened magnetic activity. The more sunspots there are, the more likely it is that solar storms will occur, but a major storm can occur at any time.

“As with hurricanes, whether a cycle is active or weak refers to the number of storms, but everyone needs to remember it only takes one powerful storm to cause expensive problems,” said NOAA scientist Doug Biesecker, who chairs the panel. “The strongest solar storm on record occurred in 1859 during another below-average cycle similar to the one we are predicting.”

The 1859 storm shorted out telegraph wires, causing fires in North America and Europe, sent readings of Earth’s magnetic field soaring, and produced northern lights so bright that people read newspapers by their light.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a storm that severe occurred today, it could cause $1-2 trillion in damages the first year and require four to ten years for recovery, compared to $80-125 billion that resulted from Hurricane Katrina.

The panel also predicted that the lowest sunspot number between cycles — or solar minimum — occurred in December 2008, marking the end of Cycle 23 and the start of Cycle 24. If the December prediction holds up, at 12 years and seven months Solar Cycle 23 will be the longest since 1823 and the third longest since 1755. Solar cycles span 11 years on average, from minimum to minimum.

An unusually long, deep lull in sunspots led the panel to revise its 2007 prediction that the next cycle of solar storms would start in March 2008 and peak in late 2011 or mid-2012. The persistence of a quiet sun since the last prediction has led the panel to a consensus that the next cycle will be “moderately weak.”

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) is the nation’s first alert of solar activity and its effects on Earth. The Center’s space weather experts issue outlooks for the next 11-year solar cycle and warn of storms occurring on the Sun that could impact Earth. SWPC is also the world warning agency for the International Space Environment Service, a consortium of 12 member nations.

As the world economy becomes more reliant on satellite-based communications and interlinked power grids, interest in solar activity has grown dramatically. In 2008 alone, SWPC acquired 1,700 new subscription customers for warnings, alerts, reports, and other products. Among the new customers are emergency managers, airlines, state transportation departments, oil companies, and nuclear power stations. SWPC’s customers reside in 150 countries.

“Our customer growth reflects today’s reality that all sectors of society are highly dependent on advanced, space-based technologies,” said SWPC director Tom Bogdan. “Today every hiccup from the sun aimed at Earth has potential consequences.”

The so far quiet Sun forced the Prediction Panel to revise their original forecast of a very active cycle to an unusually quite cycle.  Some experts expect an even weaker Cycle 24 than the Panel’s consensus forecast.  Since every government press release is an opportunity to incite fear in the public, they mixed in dire language about solar storms — a subject not really relevant to the current revision of the Cycle 24 forecast.

Nobody really knows how long or quiet this cycle will be. Nobody knows the consequences of a quiet cycle on Earth’s weather — let alone Earth’s climate. Solar scientists will learn much from Cycle 24 — and so shall we.

Important information

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information

To see a small slice of the scientific literature about the Sun’s influence on Earth’s climate, see section 4 — The Solar Cycle — on the FM reference page Science & nature – studies & reports.  To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

To see previous articles on the FM site about the solar cycle:

  1. Worrying about the Sun and climate change: cycle 24 is late, 10 July 2008
  2. Update: is Solar Cycle 24 late (a cooling cycle, with famines, etc)?, 15 july 2008
  3. Solar Cycle 24 is still late, perhaps signalling cool weather ahead, 2 September 2008
  4. Update on solar cycle 24 – and a possible period of global cooling, 1 October 2008
  5. This week’s report on the news in climate science, 7 December 2008
  6. Weekend reading recommenations about climate change, 13 December 2008
  7. An important new article about climate change, 29 December 2008
  8. About the recent conference ”Solar Activity during the onset of Solar Cycle 24″, 3 January 2009
  9. NASA: Sun undergoing a “deep solar minimum”, 13 April 2009
  10. The Unusually Quiet Sun finally gets some attention, 23 April 2009
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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sera permalink
    10 May 2009 10:47 am

    The sun is very dangerous. We have been wrong before, consistantly, and we have very little to go on. Please increase our funding so we can better protect you. You need us now more than ever?
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: This seems like sarcasim, but is IMO simple truth. Climate changes have destroyed societies in the past, and we need to learn more about them.

  2. Ronbert permalink
    10 May 2009 2:20 pm

    What’s so sad is how many scientists will go along with hoopla. Their job and/or funding depend on it.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There is much more to it than self-interest. Carl Sagan showed how scientists would mute their professional beliefs when speaking to the general public in support of a good cause. No matter how weak the foundations of his nuclear winter, to speak against it was seen in the university culture as supporting atomic war. For more on this see “Nuclear winter: science and politics“, Brian Martin, Science and Public Policy, Vol. 15, No. 5, October 1988, pp. 321-334.

    A similar dynamic is at work today, as global warming has become an article of core liberal doctrine — almost sacrosanct in the political monoculture of American universities.

  3. anna nicholas permalink
    10 May 2009 8:16 pm

    Son of Millenium Bug ! On the other hand , do the rest of you not find your lives are governed by an invisble malicious genie ? Prepare for a theoretical disaster -( check the spare wheel , have ready the correct paperwork , stock up on milk )- and It never happens . Make a rash remark – ( there is a petrol station round the next corner , this horse is going really well , I never get flu ) and the genie cackles with mirth and strikes .
    This is the Law of Protective Pessimism , not quite the same as Murphy’s Law ( anything that can go wrong , will . )

  4. 10 May 2009 8:41 pm

    This is the Homeric view of the world. The air is filled with invisible entities, which listen to our words and punish those said in an evil hour. We are, of course, too wise to believe in such fables. Unfortunately, the jealous spirits do not care about our beliefs.

  5. Sera permalink
    11 May 2009 4:15 am

    FM- Not sarcasim, just ‘spotting the actual message’. If the story is supposed to be about a weak cycle, why spend so much time talking about solar maximums and their devastating effects and costs? Did you notice that they said nothing about the devestating (possible) effects of a weak cycle?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That is the point. With so much of the climate science establishment publicly committed to global warming, they have reacted to growing evidence of a weak cycle first with denial, now with acknowledgement combined with an attempt to change the subject.

    Some global warming cheerleaders watch the late arrival of solar cycle 24 and become desperate. We have this wonderful example of scientists doing propaganda from “Sun Oddly Quiet — Hints at Next ‘Little Ice Age’?“, National Geographic, 4 May 2009 (bold emphasis added):

    “But researchers are on guard against their concerns about a new cold snap being misinterpreted. “[Global warming] skeptics tend to leap forward,” said Mike Lockwood, a solar terrestrial physicist at the University of Southampton in the U.K. (Get the facts about global warming.)” He and other researchers are therefore engaged in what they call “preemptive denial” of a solar minimum leading to global cooling.

  6. Sera permalink
    11 May 2009 8:48 am

    Climate changes have destroyed societies in the past, and we need to learn more about them. By ‘them’, did you mean climate changes or destroyed societies? Either way your statement has merit. One could argue that climate change drove us (as a species) out of the trees, or caused us to migrate to more fertile pastures, or opened our eyes to the fact that human sacrifices are not making the corn grow (time for a new leadership). Climate change may have caused us to seek new technologies for keeping warm, or digging for water (irrigation). It could be argued that without these changes, we would not have become a robust species.

  7. FxConde permalink
    11 May 2009 4:24 pm

    A quote from Thomas Sowell “The Vision Of The Anointed”. If fits for so many things we are facing now.

    “This (liberal) vision so permeates the media and academia, and has made such major inroads into the religious community, that many grow into adulthood unaware that there is any other way of looking at things, or that evidence might be relevant to checking out the sweeping assumptions of so-called “thinking people”. Many of these “thinking people” could more accurately be characterized as articulate people, as people whose verbal nimbleness can elude both evidence and logic. This can be a fatal talent, when it supplies the crucial insulation from reality behind may historic catastrophes.”

    The evidence fits that global warming is no longer a manmade event and they need to change to a new story that fits their preferences, otherwise they may not gain funding for their pet programs.

  8. Sera permalink
    12 May 2009 3:42 am

    “Preemptive Denial”? Are you kidding me? That is THE funniest thing I have heard yet within the debate. On second thought, it is kind of sad…

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