The 23rd Cycle: Learning to Live with a Stormy Star

By Sten F. Odenwald | Go to book overview
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Prologue

The 23rd Cycle is certainly an odd-sounding title for a book. Chances are, without the subtitle, Learning to Live with a Stormy Star, you might think this is a book about a new washing machine setting or some New Age nonsense. Instead, what you are going to find is a story about how we have misjudged what a “garden variety” star can do to us when we aren't paying attention. Consider this: solar storms have caused blackouts that affect millions of people; they have caused billions of dollars of commercial satellites to malfunction and die; they may also have had a hand in causing a gas pipeline rupture that killed five hundred people in 1989. Despite this level of calamity, the odds are very good that you have never heard about most of these impacts, because they are infrequent, the news media does not make the connection between solar storms and technological impacts, and there are powerful constituencies who would just as soon you not hear about these kinds of “anomalies.”

For over 150 years, telescopic views of the Sun's surface have revealed a rhythmic rise and fall in the number of sunspots. Each cycle lasts about eleven years from “sunspot maximum” to “sunspot maximum,” and, in step with this, scientists have found many other things that keep a rough cadence with it. The Northern and Southern Lights (aurora) are more common during sunspot maximum than minimum. Titanic solar flares brighter than a million hydrogen bombs also come and go with this cycle. But there is a darker side to these events. Solar flares can kill, aurora can cause blackouts, and satellites can literally be forced out of the sky.

-xi-

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