Sun Could Be Heading Towards 'Terminator' Event

The sun is set to explode with activity that researchers have argued occurs when solar cycles cease to overlap. They have dubbed this the “Terminator” event.

The sun is known to experience solar cycles of approximately 11-year periods, in the middle of which it reaches a solar maximum. At the solar maximum, the sun experiences greater numbers of sunspots, which in turn lead to higher rates of solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME).

Research published in the journal Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences in October found that the sun has two solar cycles that overlap at the point where one fades away and the other takes over. At the very end of this overlap, the sun then experiences another burst in activity and sunspots, which has been dubbed by the researchers the Termination, or Terminator, event.

While the overlap has been a known occurrence, the idea of a Termination event is not yet supported by all scientists.

sun in space
Stock image of the Sun with varying activity levels across its surface. In between solar cycles, the sun has been found to explode in activity in what has been dubbed by researchers as a Termination event.
iStock / Getty Images Plus

What Are Sunspots?

Sunspots are linked to increased activity because they are areas of the sun’s surface where the magnetic field lines are twisted, meaning that they hold a higher level of energy. When these twisted field lines suddenly release their stored energy and realign, this can result in solar flares, which are ejections of electromagnetic radiation—mostly X-rays— from the sun, and CMEs, spewing millions of tons of solar plasma into space.

When these solar outbursts happen to be aimed directly at the Earth, they can impact the planet and our magnetic field in a variety of ways, depending on their strength.

Solar flares are classified according to their power level, ranging from A-class, B-class and C-class to M-class and X-class. X-class flares are 10 times stronger than an M-class, and 100 times stronger than a C-class.

More intense flares can impact electromagnetic communications and satellites across the Earth, with some X-class flares leading to planet-wide radio blackouts and long-lasting radiation storms. This is due to X-rays knocking electrons out of the atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, leading radio waves that interact with electrons to lose energy.

Overlapping Solar Cycles

The overlapping solar-cycle idea has been theorized for a long time, with references going back to 1903 when it was proposed by William Lockyer. But this new paper aims to provide evidence to support it. The sun’s activity does peak every 11 years, hitting the expected solar maximums, while towards the end of one cycle and the start of the next, the two overlap and interfere with each other in terms of solar activity.

“We call it ‘the Extended Solar Cycle,'” lead author of the paper and deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Scott McIntosh, told SpaceWeather.com.

“The Extended Solar Cycle may be telling us something crucial about what’s happening deep inside the sun where sunspot magnetic fields are generated. It poses significant challenges to prevalent dynamo theories of the solar cycle,” he added.

In essence, when one cycle ends and another starts, they not only overlap but they interact. For example, Solar Cycle 25 began in late 2019, but Solar Cycle 24 only truly stopped influencing the sun in late 2021.

What Is a Terminator Event?

When one cycle finally, truly, stops, reaching its minimum, and the other takes over, this can lead to a surge in sunspots due to the intense magnetic activity during this period. This is what the researchers call the Terminator event: a surge in activity caused by the previous cycle’s influence ending.

This last happened in December 2021, with sunspot numbers jumping upwards when Solar Cycle 24 finally gave way to Solar Cycle 25.

“Old Solar Cycle 24 has finally died–it was terminated!” McIntosh told SpaceWeather.com in February 2022. “Now the new solar cycle, Solar Cycle 25, can really take off.”

The sun is expected to reach its solar maximum as part of its regular 11-year cycle in 2025. The next termination event is expected to occur when Solar Cycle 25 gives way to Solar Cycle 26 in around 2030.

The researchers hope that Termination events can be used to predict how active the sun will be throughout its next cycle.

“We found that the longer the time between terminators, the weaker the next cycle would be,” Bob Leamon, a solar scientist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and termination event researcher, told SpaceWeather.com. “Conversely, the shorter the time between terminators, the stronger the next solar cycle would be.”

Whether Solar Cycle 25 unfolds as the researchers say it will determine whether the Termination event will be taken seriously.

Do you have a tip on a science story that Newsweek should be covering? Do you have a question about solar cycles? Let us know via science@newsweek.com.


References

McIntosh, S. W., et al. Uniting the Sun’s Hale magnetic cycle and “extended solar cycle” paradigms. Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences, 2022. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspas.2022.923049

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