Mark Grossman: The Sun “On Low” – The Maunder Minimum

27 February 2014

The sun goes through an 11 year cycle of activity.  What sort of activity?  Well, the sun quiets down to its “minimum” at the beginning of the cycle.  Then, it gets wilder as it builds up to its “maximum.”  Then, it goes back down to its minimum again.

The sun begins a cycle relatively quietly and, then, become more and more stormy.  Storms on the sun aren’t like storms on the earth.  When the sun has a storm, it gives off flares and coronal mass ejections (CME’s) — energy explodes off the sun’s surface and shoots out into space.  Few of these violent energy emissions come our way because the earth is, after all, a small target.

Sunspots go right along with the sun’s stormy cycle.  At the minimum of the 11 year cycle, the sun has the fewest spots and, then, as it builds toward the maximum, the number of spots increase.  Sunspots are cooler areas on the sun’s surface that seem to act like caps, holding down a lot of energy until the build-up explodes out from the surface in a flare.

Recently, concern has grown because our sun seems to be taking a nap.  Not only is it sleeping deeply, but it went to sleep awfully suddenly.  The cycle that began 2007 was expected to be the most active yet.  But the sun’s “activity” went down – way down.

Whether a real possibility or a scientific “urban legend,” the story circulated that the sun was “holding back.”  Its apparent quiet would soon be broken by a sudden burst of activity.  That didn’t happen.  Then, when the sun perked up the slightest bit in 2011, hopes rose.  But a dismally quiet 2012 ended with a new story. The story was that there would be a “double peak.”  So, even though the sun quieted down in 2012, it would soon return to its 2011 activity level and, then, burst into a period of even more activity in 2013.  The year 2013 came and went.  Sleepier than ever.

Has this happened before?

You’d have to go back just a bit more than a century to find a solar cycle as quiet as this one.  But there have been even quieter times.  The quietest of all was the Maunder Minimum – the lowest period of solar activity/sunspots in the 400 year history of sunspot counts.  And it was a long “minimum.”  During the period starting in about 1645 and continuing to about 1715 there were years without any sunspots at all.

The astronomers who actually observed the sun and recorded their observations during this grand minimum, John Flamsteed and Gian Domenico Cassini, did notice that they were seeing remarkably few sunspots.  However, it was only in 1894, with the benefit of hindsight, that astronomer Edward Walter Maunder drew attention to the period as including the lowest sunspot counts of any recorded.  Maunder’s fellow astronomers argued that these early astronomers had been sloppy in their observations.

Not until 1976, did American astronomer John Allen Eddy bring together all the available historical data and, supplemented with abundant physical evidence, demonstrated that Flamsteed and Cassini had been diligent and careful observers.  Eddy named this most minimum of minimums after the man who first noticed it, Edward Maunder.  So, the Maunder Minimum, as the low of all lows, remains as a sort of historical benchmark against which all declines in sunspots (and solar activity) are measured.

As our sun becomes increasingly quiet, it’s nice to know that something more extreme has happened at least once before.   But the current solar activity or, rather, lack of activity, is unique in many ways.  First, our current solar inactivity and low sunspot numbers are nowhere near the Maunder minimum level.   We’re currently working on the hundred year record, beating the low benchmark set in 1913.  But, the really distressing parts of the equation are the unknowns.

The amount of the decrease is less disturbing than the rate of decrease.  Although the number of sunspots is well above record lows, the speed of the decline has not been equaled in the last 10,000 years.  The worry is that, wherever this is going, it may be going there very quickly.

About 19 years ago, space satellites, without the interference of the atmosphere, were able to measure of he sun’s energy output.  Researchers were surprised to discover the sun puts out energy at a variable rate.  As sunspot activity declines, and the sun calms, it radiates less energy.  If you are an earth-based life form, the sun’s “energy output” means “heat.”  So, with such a sudden decline in activity, one has to wonder if the sun is cooling off.  And, if the sun is cooling, what does this mean for us.

Contrary to what you might think, small shifts in solar heat levels may not have a great effect on the earth’s temperatures.  In its natural orbit, the earth is closest to the sun in December of each year.  That proximity doesn’t lessen the intensity of winters in the northern hemisphere because the earth’s distance from its source of heat, the sun, isn’t the most important factor.  Rather, the angle at which the sun’s rays hit the earth – an angle that varies naturally with the seasons – makes the difference between summer and winter temperatures.  And, even though the heat of the sun goes up and down with increases and decreases in the number of sunspots, the changes in the sun’s heat output are quite small.

Even so, could the decrease in sunspots (and the heat of the sun) affect the earth’s temperatures?  No one is certain.  The Maunder Minimum did happen at the same time as what is called “The Little Ice Age,” but no one can be sure if the two were connected.  “The Little Ice Age” was a brief period of low temperatures.  The complete set of available data indicates that this century-long drop in temperatures affected the whole world.  But, one way or the other, we are not experiencing a decline in sunspot activity that is anything like the Maunder Minimum – the low of all lows.


Mark Grossman: The Sun Behaving Badly – A Brief History of Solar Storms & CME’s

27 February 2014

When I think of weather, I think of sunshine and rain, hot and cold, wind and calm.  And, when I think about weather, I always think about the earth’s atmosphere.  I really never wake up in the morning worrying about what the weather is going to like – in space.

“Space weather” always seems like an odd term because there is nothing like the earth’s atmosphere in space.  Actually, there’s nothing in space.  Hence, the term “space.”  But actually, there is “something” in space, and that “something” is energy.

The term “space weather” also seems odd because the source of all space weather is the sun.  So, why not call it “solar weather?”  Well, the sun throws out so much energy that it affects all the “space” in the rest of the solar system.  So, the earth’s “energy weather” (or geomagnetic weather), is produced by the energy constantly thrown off by the sun.

But let’s begin at the beginning.

The sun constantly gives off energy, which flows in all directions.  That flow is called the solar wind.  And, in turn, the solar wind affects the earth.  The earth has its own energy field including the magnetic poles (which make compass needles point to the north).   As the “solar “wind” hits the earth’s own magnetic field, it produces visible auroras at both the North and South Poles.  The aurora to the North is called “the Northern Lights.”

The sun also has storms when the constant rush of solar wind is interrupted by explosions of energy from the surface of the sun.  Space weather’s version of lightning, solar flares, burst out of the sun in all directions.  Few strike the earth because the earth is a small target.  But, occasionally, the earth takes a hit.

If you’re an astronaut in space, solar flares are really bad news because they are fatal to humans without the protection of the earth’s atmosphere. Modern spacecraft can, but don’t necessarily, provide complete protection.  How did our early astronauts get by?  Very careful timing.  Most of us pay little attention to the “space weather” forecasts.  Fortunately for our early astronauts, NASA has always paid a great deal of attention and timed its manned missions very carefully.

Our atmosphere protects us from the negative effects of solar flares – even the worst solar flares: CME’s.  Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) are the worst that space weather has to offer.  On the good side, these produce beautiful auroras — much bigger and brighter than usual.  No one knew about the bad side until we started using electrical power.

CME’s supercharge the earth’s atmosphere.  Electricity moves more easily through a supercharged atmosphere.   If you build up a big enough charge in the atmosphere, electricity can move through it easily. Too easily.

When the atmosphere offers less resistance than the “wires” in our appliances, the electricity “bleeds” out of the wires to the place electricity is always seeking – the ground.

This may sound “interesting” until your car or truck just stops running.  Well, unless your car or truck has a diesel engine.  Diesels don’t depend on electricity to operate (spark plugs, etc.)   Meanwhile, in your home, your electric lights would dim to a fraction of their old brightness as most of the electricity flowed out of the wires, through the air, and to the ground.  More unnerving are the lights that might start glowing even though they’re turned off.  Electricity, as it bleeds through the air, can pass into powered-down electrical appliances and cause them to begin to operate.

This is all pretty weird.  And it’s also dangerous — if you depend on a continuous supply of electrical power.  Satellites in space depend on their “wires” to carry electrical power to where it is needed.   Aircraft, even if they don’t depend on electrical transmission for their basic operation, have computers that do.  Hospitals and emergency response units depend, not only on lights, life-saving equipment, and electronic monitors but require the best possible performance from their communication equipment.  Your telephone, both cell and landline, would be substantially impaired in a severe geomagnetic storm.

The good news is that storms severe enough to produce serious electrical disruptions don’t happen very often.  In fact, researchers can determine when really serious solar storms of the past happened by examining ice cores from ancient glaciers.  Without going into the mechanics, it’s enough to say that really serious solar storms happen about ever 500 years.  However, some “less serious” ones can be real doozies.


On January 9, 2014, a lightshow was expected from space.  And “aurora watchers” followed the “space weather” forecasts.  They were disappointed when the “magnitude of the impact” was “downgraded.”  The CME that was predicted to strike the earth was much weaker than expected.  The Northern Lights didn’t expand and weren’t visible in the 48 states of the continental United States.

An aurora was visible, but over a much more limited area.  One commentator was puzzled by the problem saying, “We could see it in Norway.”  And I bet they could.  Even weak auroras are visible in, or near, the Arctic Circle.  But it takes quite a CME, of a certain type, to treat people in the temperate zone to a good show.

So, in the lower 48, we missed the Northern Light show, but we also avoided the “minor disruptions to communications and GPS” of which NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center had warning days earlier.


On Wednesday, 22 October 2003, a “brief but intense,” geomagnetic storm was caused by what NASA described as “the fourth most powerful solar flare every seen.”  The storm expanded and brightened the Northern Lights, while it also knocked out some airline communications including high-frequency voice-radio communications for aircraft flying far northern routes.  British air traffic controllers favored southerly routes for trans-Atlantic jets during the period of the storm.  Canadian spokesman Louis Garneau explained that, in an emergency, airliners could use VHF frequencies to communicate with other aircraft or military monitoring stations.

Although the storm was a direct threat to electric utilities, high frequency radio communications, satellite navigation systems and television broadcasts, there were few immediate reports of damage.  However, NOAA Space Weather Center forecaster, Larry Combs stated, “We know that our power grids are definitely feeling the effects of this.”

The North American Electric Reliability Council of Princeton, New Jersey noted no reported failures.  Crewmembers, Foale and Kaleri, of the international space station, Expedition 8, moved to the one end of the station’s service module.  They spent 20 minutes there sheltered by the special radiation shielding designed to protect the pair in case of such an event.

The Japanese space agency temporarily shut down one of its satellites and lost contact with a second. U.S. and European researchers, together with commercial satellite operators, shut down some delicate equipment, including solar panels and, carefully, turned satellite sensors away from the storm’s blast.


On July 13, 2000, NASA and NOAA were tracking a solar storm as part of a joint project with the European Space Agency.  NASA was hoping to view an intense solar flare and its energetic proton shower with the observational satellite, Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO).  NOAA’s was doing the same with its Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES).

This would have been an opportunity to observe, for the first time with sophisticated satellite observatories, a rare solar and geomagnetic event.  The solar flare was the guest of honor at the party.  But the party had a crasher.  An extremely powerful CME coincided with this particular flare.

The Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) spacecraft was to give the first warning an hour before the arrival of the geomagnetic storm.  But the wave of particles came with such strength that the ACE’s important detectors were blinded and failed.  Without ACE, the observers could only time the arrival by watching for distortions in the Earth’s magnetic field.  They didn’t have long to wait.  The storm raged for almost nine hours.

The storm flooded cameras and star-tracking navigation devices on several satellites with solar particles compromising the devices’ operation.  Particle detectors on several NOAA and NASA spacecraft failed or were shut down to avoid damage.  Although these events hardly seem good, it could have been worse.  The Japanese Advanced Satellite for Cosmology and Astrophysics (ASCA) was sent tumbling in orbit by the energetic wave from the sun.

On the ground, power companies struggled with geomagnetically induced currents that tripped capacitors and damaged at least one transformer. Global positioning system (GPS) accuracy degraded for several hours.

Of course, if you were an aurora watcher, you were in luck.  The aurora lightshow was seen as far south as El Paso, Texas.


A CME left the Sun’s surface on March 6, 1989.  Three and a half days later, on March 9, intense auroras formed at the poles and could be seen as far south as Texas and Florida — these were the first signs that a severe geomagnetic storm had struck the earth.

Cold War fears of a nuclear attack were triggered when the burst caused short-wave radio interference.  Disruption of radio signals from Radio Free Europe into Russia aroused suspicions that the Soviet government had jammed the signal.

By midnight, communications from a weather satellite were interrupted.  Another communication satellite, TDRS-1, recorded over 250 anomalies caused by the increased particles flowing into the satellite’s own electronics.  The space shuttle Discovery, on a mission at the time, experienced an unusually high reading from a pressure sensor on one of its fuel cells.  The anomalous reading disappeared after the geomagnetic storm ended.

Beneath all of Quebec, Canada is a large layer of rock.  This rock layer acted as shield against the natural discharge of the electricity from the highly charged atmosphere into the ground.  Without another path of discharge, the powerful atmospheric electrical potential found its path of least resistance along long utility transmission lines.  Circuit breakers on Hydro-Québec’s power grid were tripped, and Quebec’s James Bay network experienced a 9-hour power failure.


An American astronomer described the solar flare that caused this storm as “one of the largest, if not the largest, ever recorded.”  Communications were disrupted worldwide. The aurora, the Northern Lights, could be seen as far south as Washington D.C.  Oddly, it is extremely difficult to find any information or even copies of contemporary news articles about this event.


A CME caused a geomagnetic storm which lasted from May 13th through the 15th in 1921.  The Northeastern United States experienced a checkerboard of blackouts.  The Northern Lights were bright and visible throughout the northern United States.  And the timing of the show was fortunate because so many other activities came to a halt as fuses blew and telegraph equipment became so damaged that service slowed to a complete stop throughout the United States.  On the other hand, radio waves were strengthened by the storm allowing intercontinental reception.

17 NOVEMBER 1882

Another geomagnetic storm caused by the arrival of a solar flare on November 17, 1882.  Some telegraph systems were rendered useless.  The switchboard at the Chicago Western Union offices caught fire several times and the equipment was badly damaged.  In Milwaukee, an electric lamp, although “turned off,” was reported to have lit up.  In the UK, telegraphs were strongly affected.


Remember those researchers who checked the ice cores for evidence of past CME’s?  They found that a really big one hits the earth causing a really big geomagnetic storm about once every 500 years.

Well, the last one of those happened in 1859.

The “Carrington Event” began when an amateur astronomer, Richard Carrington, observed the sun suddenly grow larger and brighter.  He knew that the sun had never done that before.  He also knew that a flare from the sun’s surface would be visible as a bright emission – sort of like watching a gun being fired.  Figuratively speaking, you’d see the plume of smoke and might even have an impression of something leaving the barrel of the gun.  Or, at least, you would . . . unless the barrel of the gun was aimed right at you.

What Richard Carrington couldn’t have known, at the time, was that the Sun’s size and brightness only appeared to change. A CME, in the form of a circular cloud was expanding out from the Sun. This “halo coronal mass ejection,” was so bright and emitted so much light that the sun appeared to grow in both size and brightness.  Also, Carrington couldn’t have known why the “halo” cloud appeared to be almost perfectly circular. That apparent shape indicated that the CME was headed right at him.

The CME arrived about 17 hours later.  Electrical equipment was relatively rare in 1859, but telegraph pylons threw sparks. Some telegraph operators were shocked by their equipment even after disconnection from a power supply. Other telegraph operators reported sending and receiving signals without external power — the equipment powered only by the electricity in the atmosphere. Magnetic instruments, as simple as a compass, wouldn’t give consistent readings.

Auroras, like the northern lights, which are seldom visible beyond the Arctic Circle, could be seen as far south as Venezuela. The Northern Lights were so bright in the Rockies that the glow was mistaken for sunrise by gold miners, who got up and started cooking breakfast.

In the northeastern U.S., people could read newspapers in the middle of the night by the light of the aurora. A writer for the Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser waxed lyrical in his report, “The light was greater than that of the Moon at its full, but had an indescribable softness and delicacy that seemed to envelop everything upon which it rested.”

That was 155 years ago.  If the averages hold, we have about another 345 years before the next “really big” event.

Mark Grossman: The Giant Squid – Devilfish, Sea Serpent, Monster of the Deep?

20 February 2014

In early January, off Japan’s Sadogashima Island, fisherman Shigenori Goto made an extreme rare catch – a giant squid.  Hauling in his net from a depth of about 300 feet the fisherman was confronted by something other than the fish he expected – a 12 foot squid weighing about 300 pounds.  Now being studied at the Fisheries Ocean Research Institute in Niigata Prefecture, the undersea giant lived only a few minutes after being brought to the surface.

[image] Giant squid caught in net

Even this “giant” squid can barely compare to the record length of 40 feet and the record weight of nearly a ton.  But even this incredible size is nothing compared the legends that have been inspired by the giant squid.  Fishermen notoriously exaggerate the size of “the one that got away” and, historically, seafarers did the same with the size and nature of the giant squid.

[video] Giant Squid

There is a Norse legend of a tentacled sea monster called the “kraken.”  Bigger than the biggest giant squid, it was said to grow as a large as an island and would gobble up whole ships.  Encounters, not with the “whole” giant squid, but sightings of its tentacles rising up out of the water have resulted in countless legends of sea monsters.  Witnesses, seeing only the giant squid’s tentacles have imaginatively described the unseen monster lurking below the surface.

[image] Sea Monster

Squid became a particular focus of study for naturalists from 1870 to 1880.   During that decade, a large number of squid became stranded in shallow waters near the shores of Newfoundland and New Zealand.  Most often, these squid died, and their remains washed up on a beach, more or less intact.  However, there was at least one reported attack of an adult and a child in a small fishing boat off Bell Island, Newfoundland.  These years were the peak of what came to be called the squid “strandings.”  Though in smaller numbers, strandings have continued to the present day.

[image] stranded squid

In the distant past, the washed-up remains of dead squid were often thought to be sea monsters.  The squid even came to share, along with several other sea creatures, the nickname “devilfish.”  In fact, squid are pretty scary looking.  I like to say squid have 10 arms.  But, in fact, I’m mixing and adding the arms with, and to, the tentacles.  Technically, squid have eight “arms” and two “tentacles.”

But, whether arms or tentacles, both are lined with hundreds of suckers — suction cups about 1 to 2 inches wide.   Each of the suckers is lined with a full set of “teeth” or serrated rings that pierce the flesh and, together with the suction, attach the squid to its prey.  The suction cups run the length of the arms forming a circle around the squid’s month, or rather, its beak, which strongly resembles that of a parrot.

[image] Squid suckers

Like octopuses, squid use jet propulsion to move through the water. They pull water into their body (mantle cavity) and push water out in rhythmic pulses that propel the animal through the ocean.  Their “jet” accounts for most of the their movement, but gets a little help from the squid’s small fins. Unlike most fish, which have a gas filled swim bladder that regulates their depth in the water, the giant squid maintains its depth through the presence of an ammonium chloride solution throughout its body.  Lighter than sea water, the solution allows the squid to regulate its depth.  And it has quite a range.

Although data is incomplete, giant squid seem to roam in a range of depths between 1,000 to 3,000 feet.  The comfort of the squid at such darkness may be because of its eyes, which are the largest of any living creature: 11 inches wide.  Large eyes are more sensitive to light and can detect even small changes in tone.  Extremely light-sensitive vision would serve the squid well in the darkness of these they feed on deep-sea fish and other squid species.

Giant squid are found throughout the world.  They seem to prefer moderate temperatures and are seldom found in either tropical or arctic waters.  Although fierce predators, themselves, giant squid often become food for sperm whales.  These giant whales are, possibly, the giant squid’s only predator.  Much of our knowledge of how the giant squid’s suckers affect its prey come from scars left on sperm whales after their struggle to make a meal out of a giant squid.



Mark Grossman: The Rhea – the Ostrich’s and Emu’s American Cousin

20 February 2014

Africa has its ostrich, and Australia has its emu. However, many are unaware that the Americas have their version of these famous birds: the less-famous rhea.  This large, grey-brown bird is, on first sight, unmistakably the close relative of both the ostrich and emu.


However, the rhea grows to a height of just a bit under 6 feet, shorter than its, sometimes, 9 foot-tall cousin, the ostrich.  The rhea is, also, a comparative feather-weight at just 88 pounds when compared to its, sometimes, 240 pound African cousin.  But the rhea is fast enough to give the ostrich a good “run for its money.”  With a top speed of 40 mph, the rhea might not win a race against the fastest ostriches.  But that’s no disgrace because the ostrich, with its highest speeds clocked at about 43 mph, is the fastest land animal on earth.


Perhaps, speed compensates for flight.  Like the other members of its intercontinental family, the rhea is a completely flightless bird.  It’s preference for the ground earned it the name “rhea” given by German zoologist Paul Möhring, in 1752.  Named after a Greek Titan, Rhea, the name literally means “ground.”

Certainly, Möhring’s name is less creepy that the rhea’s native name, ñandú guazu, meaning spider!  The rhea earned this arachnid nickname through its habit of half extending its wings when it runs.  Although it’s actually using its wings for a bit of aerodynamic assistance, the half extended wings move up and down, as it runs, giving distant observers the impression of a giant spider.

Similar to the ostrich in appearance the rhea not only differs in its smaller size but, also, in its distinctly grey-brown plumage.  Unlike most birds, the rhea has 3 rather than 4 toes.  However, it doesn’t stand out as an oddity among its cousins.  The ostrich is the only bird on earth with only 2 toes.

And there’s another twist.  There are two varieties of rhea, the “Greater” and the “Lesser.”  Both live in about the same locations in South America.  A would-be birdwatcher might be frustrated because the two types aren’t so very different.   In other words, it’s hard for an observer, even at close range, to be able to tell the “greater” from the “lesser.”

Rheas are only found in South America — typically in the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.  These birds tend to live in flocks of 20 to 25 and make an odd sight when the flock is frightened and running from danger. The individual birds and the flock run with a zigzagging course.  They use their wings as sort of “air rudders” extending one, then, the other to produce the zigzag motion.  As a matter of fact, for a flightless bird, the rhea uses its wings quite a bit.  But, as a running bird, it uses its wings more like a boat’s sails than an aircraft’s wings.


During mating season, the flocks dissolve as males and females pair off and mate. Though normally silent, during mating season, the male rhea makes an extremely loud booming noise.  An individual male will mate with several females.  After mating, the rhea’s home life mirrors that of the Australian emu.   Each female lays her eggs in a single nest — one every other day for a week to ten days, .  Then, the female abandons them to the male, who maintains the nest, sits on the eggs and otherwise cares for the eggs and hatchlings.



These birds have few predators other than human hunters.  In South America, rheas provide feathers for feather dusters, skins for leather goods and, even, eggs and edible meat.  Unlike Australia’s emu, the rhea is not raised as a ranch animal.

[video] Wild Kingdom