For those that do not normally follow solar activity, here is some background info to put things in perspective:
The sun has solar cycles of activity which are approx 11 years. The cycle begins with a magnetic pole shift on the sun and the intensity and
frequency of solar flares increases until it hits a maximum somewhere near the middle of the 11 year cycle. The cycle then winds down and comes back
to a minimum where the polarity changes again and a new cycle is born.
When a solar maximum is reached, many sunspots will appear and will often eject charged particles into space. These are called CMEs, or Coronal Mass
Ejections. The strength of the flare is rated on a scale which has three main categories: C, M and X.
C flares are rather commonplace and any 'active' sunspot is likely to pop a C or two. M's come from larger sunspots and if an M flare CME hits Earth
they will result in really good aurora displays in the polar regions southward. X flares are where things get a little wonky. Remember, it all
depends on how the CME hits Earth (sometimes it is a glancing blow, other times it is a dead-hit) but a low X (like the 2.2 being reported) may just
cause some aurora in places that rarely get them, radio blackouts, unusual HAM propagation. A stronger X-class flare such as a X9 or higher may cause
crazier things like satellite failure, power grid failure, and so on.
Now, getting back to solar cycles and where we are now... The solar cycle 23 went from 1996 to 2008 and was considered rather strong, or energetic,
compared to other cycles. Based on this, scientists predicted cycle 24 to be more intense than any we have witnessed in modern times. By "modern
times", I mean the technology age where we are able to study the sun in detail.
Well, after solar cycle 23 ended in 2008 the sun went quiet as everybody anticipated the beginning of this "big" cycle 24... and waited, and waited,
This past year the sun started to show some activity but then went quiet AGAIN. Now the scientists that predicted a really intense maximum started
fearing that we were entering into a prolonged minimum. Prolonged minimum have happened before, and they usually are followed by record cold spells
on Earth and even failed crops / famine.
Now the sun is active again - so the question is whether this is just another spurt followed by another round of silence or if cycle 24 is really
going to take off for real this time. If cycle 24 really takes off, the prolonged minimum will still be noteworthy and may actually help explain a
stronger or more intense maximum during this same cycle.
Unfortunately, it is down to speculation what will happen next. Since we have only observed sunspots since the 1750's and really have only recently
in the past 50 years been able to observe CMEs in detail, we really cannot predict what will happen. Could there be a much larger overarching cycle
at play here? Perhaps. Could an extremely quiet minimum indicate a very intense maximum? Perhaps.
Time will tell.
As for this X2.2, I would advise that people enjoy the show if you live near the poles but not much else for the rest of us. Sun geeks like me will
just enjoy seeing what happens next.
edit on 14-2-2011 by nydsdan because: Edit to fix a syntax error