Planet Gore

Sun Celebrates Solstice with Fireworks

So much for the “settled science” of solar storms:

A tempest swirls during the beginning of a large solar eruption, one of the first of the new sunspot cycle, on August 1.

Pictures of a series of eruptions that day—made possible by a new satellite—revealed for the first time that outbursts covering the entire sun can be connected.

The ultraviolet image was captured by NASA’s newest sun-observing satellite, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which has been watching the sun nonstop since last spring.

Though it started small, the eruption stunned scientists by quickly expanding to envelop much of the star. Scientists had previously known that intense solar activity could occur simultaneously on multiple sections of the sun, but the satellite’s new capabilities have enabled researchers to see that these events aren’t always coincidental. (See more pictures of solar eruptions.)

“We had to be sort of beaten over the head,” Alan Title, a physics professor at Stanford University, said earlier this week at an annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

And in other space news, last night’s lunar eclipse showed that the stratosphere “is as clear as it’s been in more than 50 years” (devoid of volcanic particles). A clear stratosphere = more sunlight hitting the planet = more warming:

Keen explains why lunar eclipses can be used to probe the stratosphere: “At the distance of the Moon, most of the light refracted into the umbra (Earth’s shadow) passes through the stratosphere, which lies 10 to 30 miles above the ground. When the stratosphere is clear, the umbra (and therefore, the eclipsed Moon) is relatively bright. On the other hand, if the atmospheric lens that illuminates the Moon becomes dirty enough, light will be blocked and the eclipse will appear dark.”

This is timely and important because the state of the stratosphere affects climate; a clear stratosphere “lets the sunshine in” to warm the Earth below. At a 2008 SORCE conference Keen reported that “The lunar eclipse record indicates a clear stratosphere over the past decade, and that this has contributed about 0.2 degrees to recent warming.”

And yet again, the inconvenient truth is that the giant ball of hot gas at the center of our solar system has rather more to do with the temperature of our planet than our carbon emissions.


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