‘We could see these changes occurring as early as the next few decades’, say the researchers.
Britain may lose the magic of the Northern Lights by the middle of the century due to major shifts in solar activity, scientists have discovered.
Space scientists at the University of Reading conclude that plummeting solar activity will shrink the overall size of the sun’s ‘atmosphere’ by a third and weaken its protective influence on the Earth, reports Phys.org.
This could make the Earth more vulnerable to technology-destroying solar blasts and cancer-causing cosmic radiation, as well as making the aurora less common away from the north and south polar regions for 50 years or more.
Dr Mathew Owens, from the University of Reading’s Meteorology department, led the research. He said: “The magnetic activity of the sun ebbs and flows in predictable cycles, but there is also evidence that it is due to plummet, possibly by the largest amount for 300 years.” If so, the Northern Lights phenomenon would become a natural show exclusive to the polar regions, due to a lack of solar wind forces that often make it visible at lower latitudes.
“As the sun becomes less active, sunspots and coronal ejections will become less frequent. However, if a mass ejection did hit the Earth, it could be even more damaging to the electronic devices on which society is now so dependent.”
The study, ‘Global solar wind variations over the last four centuries’, published in Scientific Reports, shows how sunspot records can be used to reconstruct what happened the last time the Earth experienced such a dramatic dip in solar activity more than three centuries ago. Combined with updated models and contemporary reports, the researchers were able to predict what could happen during a similar event, likely to occur in the next few decades.
The scientists believe the coming ‘grand minimum’ could be similar to the Maunder Minimum of the 17th century, when sun spot activity almost stopped – another symptom of a less active sun.