TCS Daily

The Prodigal Sun

By Russell Seitz - November 6, 2003 12:00 AM

The Northern Lights have seen strange sights, few weirder than a Canadian statistician being hailed for the Senate defeat of Kyoto Lite. While his footnote was being added to political history, the heavens themselves blazed forth the sun's displeasure at being upstaged in debate about the changeable climate of the solar system.


Last week's auroral light show was not a flash in the pan. A paper in press in Physical Review Letters reveals how fluctuating solar activity has been recorded by cosmic ray debris locked in the same polar ice cores that inform us about past CO2 levels.


When the sun is on steroids, it does more than crackle with magnetic gyres that fire off aurora producing outbursts. The immense magnetosphere of the sun as a whole can envelop the inner solar system and sweep aside the protons and ions from deep space that whack beryllium 10 into being in the Earth's ionosphere.


So when auroras brighten, cosmic rays dim, making Be-10 a subtle but solid proxy for counting the sunspots that went unobserved in the centuries before the telescope's invention.


The last thing the Physical Review Letters authors -- geophysicist Ilya Usoskin of Finland's University of Oulu, and his teammates at Germany's Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy -- desire is to be dragged into the climate change debate, for when scientists have a hot topic they like to get to the bottom of it. Especially when colleagues are kicking themselves for not plotting the data against sunspot numbers as they did.


This evidence of a big dip in Be-10 and a corresponding surge in solar variability has been lurking in the data base for a generation. Physicist Michael Lockwood, of the UK's Rutherford Laboratory near Oxford told The New Scientist, "why the hell didn't I do this?... We are living with a very unusual sun at the moment."


I'll say -- last week's aurora was bright enough here, 180 miles east of Manhattan, to cut through the overcast like fireworks on a foggy 4th of July. The last time this happened so spectacularly was September 1, 1859, when the attendant magnetic storm made sparks fly off of Mr. Morse's newfangled telegraph grid. Whatever is the solar dynamo getting up to now?


Back then, Alexander von Humboldt and Prince Gallitzin wasted away white nights inside copper bubbles at the bottom of gardens in Berlin and St. Petersburg watching magnets twitch as the aurora pulsed in a futile effort to understand the sun's confusing message.


Today we have yet to build a small fusion power plant on Earth, and remaim pretty clueless as to what makes star-sized ones tick. It's not as simple and compact a problem as understanding Earthly climate -- one is entirely inside the other. And science is hard pressed to separate the problem's parts.


Considered over seasons, the sun seems to shine with encouraging constancy -- the sunspot cycle is not an urgent agricultural concern. Hence the sun's being back burnered by atmospheric chemists as a source of climate change. But while solar magnetohydrodynamics may frost few pumpkins, reductionism cuts both ways -- astrophysics does not follow from ecology.

If the climate change debate were re-run in a policy vacuum, the inconstant sun might be invoked more often than never by advocates of the precautionary principle.


Solar observatories provide stunning images of what the sun shoots out in all directions. But it's still too bad that total eclipses of the sun are seen by so few. No two look alike, (damn the statistics, I've been very lucky to see two) and while some display coronas as symmetrical as the halo of a Byzantine saint, others feature manes roaring out like blast furnace exhaust. Last week we got singed.


The outburst was bad enough to send the Space Station crew scurrying to duck behind such thin walls as space habitats built by the lowest bidder provide. It should also teach science committees on Capitol Hill some strange new respect for the elephant in the room -- the one with the sunglasses and the tan.



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