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Solar Weather

It’s not just that it’s hot.  It’s the stifling stillness that has settled in over the center of the continent that slowly suffocates, like a python wrapping around its prey.  A year that started out promising, with plenty of warmth and rain early on, has turned deadly for crops throughout the grain belt of the US.

The price of corn has shot up 40% in the last month as a terrible harvest falls ahead of brown, dead stalks grimly standing in the fields.  As much as a third of the grain belt states is in “severe drought” conditions, and it’s likely to only worsen.  This is the kind of shock our economic system simply cannot handle right now, already weakened by bumbling in financial centers far from where people do actual work.

What has caused such awful weather?  It’s always hard to say exactly, but we can be sure this will last a while longer – and it is too late for most of the crops.

The real bottom line on the weather is a simple one – the jet stream has died.   This is normally what drives mixing between wet southern latitudes, around the Gulf of Mexico, and the plains states.  Without a strong zonal flow high above our heads there is nothing bringing up the wet that needs to fall as rain.  Take a look at this polar view of the jet stream, in dark grey:

Note that there isn’t much grey there at all.  Where we should expect a band running around the planet like a river of air, there are patches.  That’s what has gone wrong, but why?

No one can say for sure exactly why this happens, but we all know it is far from the first time.  The dustbowl drought, which last peaked in 1936, was followed by a strong drought in 1958 (which set off a recession) and again in 1980 (same).  They were running every 22 years, although this one is closer to 33.  These match the peaks of solar activity as sunspot maxima, the years when the sun is the active with a peak level of flares, every 11 years.  Not every sunspot maximum has such a harsh effect on weather, and the effect is not precisely cyclical – but it has patterns.

This is likely the origin of the Kondratieff Waves that define business cycles and generations.  Our own activity exacerbates the effects and makes them into a human story.

This year, however, there is a lot more to the solar cycle.  In 2009 sunspot activity went to zero for the first time in over 50 years, marking the end of the “Modern Maximum”.  Solar activity, as measure by the flares we see as “spots”, is at a 100 year minimum right now.  Over time, this could mean that the atmosphere should see some cooling as it responds to a lower overall solar output.  But that does not mean that the sun is dormant.

Starting in May, a series of “Coronal Mass Ejections”, or very big and nasty flares, shot out towards Earth.  The last big one hit us on July 14th, a shot that lit up the northern lights as a wave of ionized particles sparkled the atmosphere.  While the sun is clearly entering a more quiet phase than we’ve seen in a century, it is apparently blowing off the last of the energy from the previous cycle in a few bursts.

Does this influence our weather?  The short answer is that it has to, but no one is exactly sure how.  We know that there were similar bursts that interrupted radio communication at the start of the Dustbowl in the 1930s, but these things do happen fairly often.  They seem to charge up the Earth’s magnetic field and provide a bit more shielding from cosmic rays, which in turn may block the latter’s ability to form high clouds way up at the boundary of the stratosphere.

I can tell you that many of my friends have been suffering from depression and anxiety in the last week.  It’s an unscientific poll by any measure, but with the oppressive heat and perhaps a kick from the ionized atmosphere life is out of whack.  It’s affecting everything in strange ways, possibly including the karmic balance in our own minds and bodies.

What will it take to re-start the jet stream and get our weather back on track?  It is too late for the crops, which come into maturity in July.  For the rest of us, the end of the nasty big solar flares would be a good help.  But this is our sun, and little tantrums or not it is responsible for all of the life on this wonderful planet.  A few bad years come with everything our sun provides – but even those are somewhat predictable.

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11 thoughts on “Solar Weather

  1. I agree that everyone is out of it lately. I thought it was just the heat but it would not surprise me if things like solar flares influence people’s attitude more than we expect.
    One comment on the sunspot cycles – you’ve mentioned this before, but doesn’t it suggest that Global Warming is cyclical? Certainly this year we are not seeing a change in the patterns and its if anything hotter. But when would we see a cooling if this “Modern maximum” has ended?

    • I try not to talk about it a lot, mostly because I am not sure, but I am a skeptic of human-made global warming. I do think that the effects we have seen are mostly part of the ordinary cycle, but what we are doing can’t help at all. How much is natural and how much is man-made? My guess would be 50-50, but it’s only a guess.
      I expect a pretty dramatic cooling at the end of this sunspot maximum, which should peak next year. There may be other strange effects through this cycle. It’s not as though things just get hotter or colder – the atmosphere has to adjust, and that takes both time and a lot of turbulence. The loss of the Jet Stream may in fact be related to cooling, for example – less heat pushing northward from the Tropics and a much more atmosphere. No one is sure yet because the cycles are a bit long and we don’t have great data doing back long enough.

  2. The drought is terrible, I don’t know how farmers will survive this. If it gets any worse we will be talking about the depression again for sure.

    • Yes, that is definitely going to become a part of our larger media / conversation. And just in time for the election, too. Not good for Obama.

  3. I have just intuiatively known for years that something big was going to happen. I didn’t know what was coming, I just knew it was going to be big. At first, I thought it would be God, thumping us on our pointed little heads. I am not big into religion. I haven’t been to church in maybe 20 years? But just look around. You can see some of the prophecies have come true. The native americans have ten signs of when the Great Spirit come back. The ninth one was telling about the sea turning black and many things dead because of it. The tenth sign is – You will here of a dwelling in the heaven will crash to the earth and appear like a blue star. (Space Station and solar flares, anybody? ) and then very soon will be here the Great Spirit .As to the Mayan Calendar, they had been right before. Their beginnig of the new age, their prophecies said their world would end because of Butterflies. At the time of the Spainish follks came the sail of the ships appeared like butterflies. This happened 55 years after the start of the new age. But, I am going on the side of science. They are predicting the largest solar flares in a 100 years and we have a hole in our magnetic sheild that goes from the poles to the equator. NASA has found this out in, I believe, in 1997. We are not the only planet that is heating up. Many more in our solar system. Oh,I forgot, there is a energy orit cloud cruising toward us. All science. So, I prepare for emergency disasters. Tornados, flood, drought. I live on the New Madrid fault line. There is nothing I can do about that. If the Muddy Mississippi Rive wants to roll over on you.

    • We live in a pretty hostile universe, so the one true miracle is that we exist at all. But it’s not as though life on this planet hasn’t been nearly extinguished before. We could well be the next Dinosaurs, a species that inhabited every part of this globe before their voracious eating habits made it impossible for them to survive a decent sized shock.
      There is always a new threat. The only thing that upsets me is when we make up threats to each other, like a bunch of bored cats. There’s plenty out there. “May you live in interesting times,” goes the old curse. Does it get much more “interesting” than this?

      • Thank you for the comment. Yes, there is always another threat out there. If it wasn’t so dangerous, this would be very interesting times. It just scares me sometimes at the rate this interesting times are coming around.

  4. To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. I think that sums it up pretty well.

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