The spectacular solar storm we had on April 23, 2023 reminds us that, as the current sunspot cycle continues to progress, we will have many more of these spectacular aurora to look forward to in the next few years. So where are we in the current sunspot cycle?
Sunspot cycles average about 9 to 12 years, with the stronger cycles on the shorter end of this range and weaker cycles on the longer end of this range. The current cycle, Number 25, seems to be exceeding all forecasts for a weaker cycle and may in fact resemble previous ones like Cycle 22 or 23.
The current cycle began in December 2019 and some predictions at that time suggested that it would probably be a very weak cycle perhaps not even exceeding Cycle 24. This is shown by the grey band in the above figure. Some even thought based on solar magnetic field data that we could be heading into another Maunder Minimum with no recognizble sunspots for the next 50 years. Instead, the rapid rise of activity and solar flares since 2020 has demonstrated that we still do not really understand what drives sunspot cycles.
This is rather embarrasing. The sunspot cycle is one of the most glaring features of the sun whose nearly constant period of 11 years begs to be explained. This is like meteorologists still not being able to explain why Earth has its four seasons.
The current sunspot cycle was born with the first spots sighted around April 2018 with spots that had the opposite polarity of those in Cycle 24. It is common for such spots to start appearing several years before the actual cycle commences. But by November 2019 this number had increased to two spots. In May 2020 the first M-class flare erupted, followed by the first X-class flare in July 2020.
Since 2020, the sunsppot counts and flare activity have consistently placed Cycle 25 on the upper tracks of the strong cycle forecasts being nearly 50% more active than the initial predictions year-by-year. Already by January and March 2023 we are seeing 143 and 122 sunspots which compares with the peak of 146 seen for Cycle 24. The red band in the figure below shows the current range of curves based on the most recent data. This places the trend for the maximum somewhere between Cycle 23 and Cycle 24. But the current year 2023 trends will probably give us the definitive predictions. So far, it looks like Cycle 25 will peak around early-2024.
So far, Cycle 25 is 40 months old. During this time we have already experienced 8 X-class flares on (X1) October 2, 2022, (X1.2) January 5, 2023, (X1.3) January 9, 2023, (X1) January 10, 2023, (X1.1) February 11, 2023, (X2.2) February 17, 2023, (X2.1) March 3, 2023, and (X1.2) March 29, 2023. Most of these appeared in 2023 so the pace of these major events is quickening.
Why is this important?
The sunspot cycle is a barometer of what we call space weather. Space weather is a term analogous to Earth weather with a number of parallels. Strong terrestrial winds are equivalent to the solar wind. Solar flares are equivalent to severe lightning storms, and coronal mass ejections are analogous to hurricanes and tornados. Just as severe Earth weather can cause billions of dollars of damage, severe space weather can damage satellites in Earth orbit, produce harmful radiation for astronauts working in space, and cause electric power grid outages. They also produce dramatic aurora!
The most recent examples of what space weather can do is the loss of 40 Starlink satellites on February 3, 2022 costing SpaceX over $100 million. The cause was a space weather event that heated up Earth’s outer atmosphere causing it to expand into space and provide extra drag to the satellites in Low Earth Orbit. The satellites tried to compensate by firing their thrusters but quickly used up all their propellant and burned up in the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites are having their own problems. Launched in 2013, these satellites measure and map Earth’s magnetic field. By July 2022 the satellites in the three-satellite constellation have been falling by up to 20 km per year from their initial orbit of 450-530 km.
How stormy can it get?
The graph shows how disturbed Earth’s magnetic field is during various years throughout the sunspot cycle. It is based on the average activity from the past three cycles. The black line gives the average number of extreme storms with Kp > 8 that produce aurora seen as far south as southern California or Florida like the recent one on April 23, 2023. The red line is storms stronger tha Kp = 7, and the blue line is storms stronger then Kp=6. These still produce brilliant aurora, but generally only seen in the northern-tier states of the United States and in New England and Alaska.
We are now in Year 4 of the current sunspot cycle with a maximum that may be between Year 5-6 in 2024-2025, so we should expect that most of the aurora activity is still in our future, peaking sometime between Year 7 and 9, which is about 2026-2028. It all depends on how the sunspot numbers play out this year and in 2024, but for aurora lovers, the best is yet to come!