The sun is blank today for the 10th straight day and it has been without sunspots this year more than half the time as the current solar cycle heads towards the next solar minimum. Solar cycle 24 is currently on pace to be the weakest sunspot cycle with the fewest sunspots since cycle 14 peaked in February 1906. Solar cycle 24 continues a recent trend of weakening solar cycles which began with solar cycle 21 that peaked around 1980. The last time the sun was this blank in a given year on a percentage basis was 2009 during the last solar minimum when 71% of the time was spotless. That last solar minimum actually reached a nadir in 2008 when an astounding 73% of the year featured a spotless sun - the most spotless days in a given year since 1913.
All indications are that the upcoming solar minimum which is expected to begin in 2019 may be even quieter than the last one which was the deepest in nearly a century. One of the natural impacts of decreasing solar activity is the weakening of the ambient solar wind and its magnetic field which, in turn, allows more and more cosmic rays to penetrate the solar system. The intensification of cosmic rays can have important consequences on such things as Earth’s cloud cover and climate, the safety of our astronauts exploring in space, and lightning.
Galactic cosmic rays are high-energy particles originating from outside the solar system that can impact the Earth’s atmosphere. Our first line of defense from cosmic rays comes from the sun as its magnetic field and the solar wind combine to create a 'shield' that fends off cosmic rays attempting to enter the solar system. The shielding action of the sun is strongest during Solar Maximum and weakest during Solar Minimum with the weakening magnetic field and solar wind. The intensity of cosmic rays varies globally by about 15% over a solar cycle because of changes in the strength of the solar wind, which carries a weak magnetic field into the heliosphere, partially shielding Earth from low-energy galactic charged particles (source).
Evidence of an increase in stratospheric radiation
One way to monitor cosmic ray penetration into the Earth’s upper atmosphere is to measure stratospheric radiation over an extended period of time. “Spaceweather.com” has led an effort for nearly three years to monitor radiation levels in the stratosphere over California with frequent high-altitude helium balloon flights. These balloons contain sensors which detect X-rays and gamma-rays in the energy range 10 keV to 20 MeV and are produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth's atmosphere. These energies span the range of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners. The findings confirm the notion that indeed cosmic rays have been steadily increasing over California as solar cycle 24 heads towards the next solar minimum. In fact, there has been a 13% increase of stratospheric radiation over California from March 2015 to Jan 2018.
Consequences of increasing cosmic rays: cloud cover/climate
The correlation between cosmic rays and cloud cover over a solar cycle was first reported by Svensmark and Friis-Christensen in 1997. A more recent study by Svensmark published in the August 2016 issue of Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics continues to support the idea of an important connection between cosmic rays and clouds.
In this publication, the authors found that “the observed variation of 3–4% of the global cloud cover during the recent solar cycle is strongly correlated with the cosmic ray flux. This, in turn, is inversely correlated with the solar activity. The effect is larger at higher latitudes in agreement with the shielding effect of the Earth's magnetic field on high-energy charged particles. The above relation between cosmic ray flux and cloud cover should also be of importance in an explanation of the correlation between solar cycle length and global temperature, that has been found”.
Consequences of increasing cosmic rays: threat to astronauts
Not only can an increase of cosmic rays have an impact on Earth’s cloud cover and climate, it may have a dangerous impact on astronauts as they explore space. A newly published paper supports the finding of an increase in cosmic rays as solar activity continues to diminish and we approach the next solar minimum and the authors, led by Prof. Nathan Schwadron of the University of New Hampshire, show that radiation from deep space is dangerous and intensifying faster than previously predicted. The story begins four years ago when Schwadron and colleagues first sounded the alarm about cosmic rays. Analyzing data from the Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation (CRaTER) instrument onboard NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), they found that cosmic rays in the Earth-Moon system were peaking at levels never before seen in the Space Age. The worsening radiation environment, they pointed out, was a potential peril to astronauts, curtailing how long they could safely travel through space. This figure (below) from their original 2014 paper shows the number of days a 30-year old male astronaut flying in a spaceship with 10 g/cm2 of aluminum shielding could go before hitting NASA-mandated radiation limits. In the 1990s, the astronaut could spend 1000 days in interplanetary space. In 2014 … only 700 days. "That's a huge change," says Schwadron.
The shielding action of the sun is strongest during Solar Maximum and weakest during Solar Minimum–hence the 11-year rhythm of the mission duration plot above. The problem is, as the authors note in their new paper, the shield is weakening: "Over the last decade, the solar wind has exhibited low densities and magnetic ﬁeld strengths, representing anomalous states that have never been observed during the Space Age. As a result of this remarkably weak solar activity, we have also observed the highest fluxes of cosmic rays."
Consequences of increasing cosmic rays: possible lightning trigger
Finally, there has been some research suggesting there is a connection between cosmic rays and lightning (paper 1, paper 2). When cosmic rays smash into molecules in our atmosphere, the collisions create showers of subatomic particles, including electrons, positrons, and other electrically charged particles. This shower of electrons would collide into still more air molecules, generating more electrons. All in all, cosmic rays could each set off an avalanche of electrons and trigger lightning.
Meteorologist Paul Dorian