Major shifts in solar activity recently discovered by scientists may well result in Britain losing the magic of the Northern Lights by the middle of the century. The Northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, can be seen in the very north of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and it was visible as far south as Oxfordshire in March 2016. Traveling costs to the UK have fallen sharply due to Brexit, but this new discovery means travelers best not wait too long if they plan on seeing the Northern Lights from the UK.
Space scientists at the University of Reading predict that plummeting solar activity will weaken the sun’s atmospheric protective influence on the Earth, as its overall size will shrink by a third. This could make the aurora less common further away from the north and south Polar Regions for at least 50 years. The Earth would also be more vulnerable to solar blasts that has the ability to destroy technology and cause cancer due to cosmic radiation.
The research was led by Dr Mathew Owens from the University of Reading’s Meteorology department and he explained that the magnetic activity of the sun flows and ebbs in predictable cycles. There is however evidence that it is due to plummet by probably the largest amount for 300 years. If this happens, the natural show of the Northern Lights phenomenon would become exclusive to the Polar Regions, as the solar wind forces that often make it visible at lower latitudes would no longer be present.
Owens added that coronal ejections and sunspots would become less frequent as the sun becomes less active. The electronic devices, on which society is now so dependent, could also be severely damaged if a mass ejection did hit the Earth.
Scientific Reports published the study titled ‘Global solar wind variations over the last four centuries’. The report demonstrates what happened the last time the Earth experienced such a dramatic decrease in solar activity. To do this, researchers used sunspot records to reconstruct the event that occurred more than three centuries ago.
The researchers combined the sunspot records with contemporary reports and updated models, and were able to predict what could happen during a similar event. They also estimate that such an event is likely to take place in the next few decades.
Another symptom of a less active sun is that sun spot activity almost stops. The scientists are of the opinion that the coming ‘grand minimum’ will be similar to the Maunder Minimum of the 17th century.
Solar wind travels at around a million miles per hour and consists of electrically charged particles from the sun. A reduction in solar wind would cause the heliosphere to shrink significantly. The heliosphere is the ‘bubble’ around the solar system sustained by particles emitted by the sun and it helps shield the Earth from harmful radiation coming from outer space. The heliosphere has however been weakening steadily since the 1950s.
The scientists foresee that the bubble’s size will reduce quickly by about the middle of the 21st century. Although the Earth’s own magnetic field deflects some radiation, areas close to the north and south poles, where the Earth’s magnetic field is the weakest, are more vulnerable.
Professor Mike Lockwood FRS from the University of Reading and co-author of the study, notes that if the decline in sunspots continues at this rate, these changes could transpire as early as in the next few decades. Data from the past suggests that this will indeed be the case.
It is sometimes mistakenly believed that the Maunder Minimum in solar activity of the 17th century caused the so-called Little Ice Age. During this time, winter temperatures in Europe and elsewhere were lower than average. The Little Ice Age actually started before the Maunder Minimum and ended after it. Lockwood concluded that their previous work with the Met Office has shown that the solar minimum that is predicted won’t do much to offset the global heating effects of greenhouse gas emissions, which is far more significant.