Over the past few decades, scientists have stepped up their efforts to understand the Sun’s eruptions and the space weather created as a result. Detailed space weather forecasts that anticipate major solar storms would help companies and government departments that operate electrical grids, telecommunications satellites and radio stations.
But the accuracy of today’s forecasts is not high enough for operators to act upon them with confidence. Space weather forecasts are about as accurate now as terrestrial weather forecasts were two decades ago, says Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the chair of a 2008 US Space Studies Board report into space weather. There is plenty of room for improvement, “but we’re catching up rapidly,” he says.
The Sun goes through a cycle, in which the number of sunspots on its surface rises and falls over a period of roughly 11 years. These dark blotches on the solar surface are sites of intense magnetic activity. They emit explosions of energy called solar flares and balloon-shaped bursts of charged particles called coronal mass ejections that race through space at several million miles per hour. As the solar maximum approaches in 2013, so the number of sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections will rise.
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