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The 23rd Cycle

The 23rd Cycle: Learning to Live with a Stormy Star

Sten F. Odenwald
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The 23rd Cycle
    Book Description:

    On March 13, 1989, the entire Quebec power grid collapsed, automatic garage doors in California suburbs began to open and close without apparent reason, and microchip production came to a halt in the Northeast; in space, communications satellites had to be manually repointed after flipping upside down, and pressure readings on hydrogen tank supplies on board the Space Shuttle Discovery peaked, causing NASA to consider aborting the mission. What was the cause of all these seemingly disparate events? Sten Odenwald gives convincing evidence of the mischievous -- and potentially catastrophic -- power of solar storms and the far-reaching effects of the coming "big one" brewing in the sun and estimated to culminate in the twenty-third cycle in the year 2001 and beyond. When the sun undergoes its cyclic "solar maximum," a time when fierce solar flares and storms erupt, fantastic auroras will be seen around the world. But the breathtaking spectacles will herald a potentially disastrous chain of events that merit greater preparation than Y2K. Is anyone listening?

    The 23rd Cycle traces the previously untold history of solar storms and the ways in which they were perceived by astronomers -- and even occasionally covered up by satellite companies. Punctuated with an insert containing dramatic color images showing the erupting sun, the book also includes a history of the record of auroral sightings, accounts of communications blackouts from the twentieth century, a list of industries sensitive to solar storms, and information about radiation and health issues.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50593-2
    Subjects: Physics, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. xi-xvii)

    The 23rd Cycle is certainly an odd-sounding title for a book. Chances are, without the subtitle, Learning to Live with a Stormy Star, you might think this is a book about a new washing machine setting or some New Age nonsense. Instead, what you are going to find is a story about how we have misjudged what a “garden variety” star can do to us when we aren’t paying attention. Consider this: solar storms have caused blackouts that affect millions of people; they have caused billions of dollars of commercial satellites to malfunction and die; they may also have had...

  5. Part I, The Past

    • 1 A Conflagration of Storms
      (pp. 3-13)

      On Thursday, March 9, 1989, astronomers at the Kitt Peak Solar Observatory spotted a major solar flare in progress. Eight minutes later, the Earth’s outer atmosphere was struck by a blast of powerful ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. The next day, an even more powerful eruption launched a cloud of gas thirty-six times the size of the Earth from Active Region 5395 nearly dead center on the Sun. The storm cloud rushed out from the Sun at over one million miles an hour, and on the evening of Monday, March 13, it struck the Earth. Alaskan and Scandinavian observers were treated...

    • 2 Dancing in the Light
      (pp. 14-24)

      January 7, 1997, seemed to be an ordinary day on the Sun. Photographs taken at the Mauna Kea Solar Observatory showed nothing unusual. In fact, to the eye and other visible wavelength instruments, the images showed not so much as a single sunspot. But X-ray photographs taken by the Yohkoh satellite revealed some serious trouble brewing. High above the solar surface, in the tenuous atmosphere of the Sun, invisible lines of magnetic force, like taut rubber bands, were coming undone within a cloud of heated gas. Balanced like a pencil on its point, it neither rose nor fell as magnetic...

    • 3 “Hello? Is Anyone There?”
      (pp. 25-34)

      It was a fantastic aurora–the best that anyone could recall in decades. When the September 18, 1941, Great Aurora took the stage, it was seen in Virginia, Denver, and St. Louis, but in New York City its displays played to a very mixed audience. From Central Park, at 9:30 P.M., pedestrians could plainly see several bright colored bands of light rivaling the full moon and spanning the sky in shades of orange, blue, and green. Curtains, rays, and flashing displays of light covered much of the sky throughout the rest of the night, giving New Yorkers a taste of...

  6. Part II, The Present

    • 4 Between a Rock and a Hard Place
      (pp. 37-49)

      Along the Pacific Coast, from Oregon to Baja California, it was turning out to be another sweltering day. Normally, the more moderate temperatures in the Northwest allowed extra power to be available to feed millions of air conditioners in the south, but in August 1996 this would not be the case. Temperatures climbed into the triple digits as the Sun rose higher in the sky. Already hot power lines from the Oregon power grid began to overheat as they carried much of the 21,450 megawatts needed to support the thousands of air conditioners that came on-line every minute. On August...

    • 5 “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore!”
      (pp. 50-62)

      The Exxon Valdez left harbor on March 23, 1989, and within hours unleashed an ecological catastrophe as it ran aground on Bligh Reef 12:04 A.M. on March 24. The spilling of eleven million gallons of oil triggered a $5.3 billion lawsuit in a highly publicized court case. A decade later, the damage to the Prince Williams Sound is still evident if you literally scratch the surface of the ecosystem. The investigation focused on the circumstances leading up to the grounding, the absence of the captain from the bridge, and the failure of the third mate to follow a proper course,...

    • 6 They Call Them “Satellite Anomalies”
      (pp. 63-74)

      January 20, 1994, was a moderately active day for the Sun. There were no obvious solar flares in progress and there was no evidence for any larger than normal amounts of X rays, but a series of coronal holes had just rotated across the Sun between January 13–19. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Environment Center, the only sign of unrest near the Earth was the high-speed solar wind from these coronal holes, which had produced measurable geomagnetic storm conditions in their wake. NASA’s SAMPEX satellite was beginning to tell another, more ominous, story. The Sun...

    • 7 Business as Usual
      (pp. 75-91)

      After the Galaxy IV satellite ceased operating on May 19, 1997, millions of pager owners woke up to discover a bit later that their high-tech devices had turned into useless pieces of plastic. When they got into their cars and tried to pump gas at the local service station, the pumps rejected their credit cards because they were unable to use the satellite to transmit and receive verification codes. One hundred thousand privately owned satellite dish systems across North America had to be repointed at a cost of one hundred dollars each. In other locales, Yankee ingenuity found a clever...

    • 8 Human Factors
      (pp. 92-112)

      On June 4, 1989, a powerful gas line explosion demolished a section of the 1,153-mile Trans-Siberian Railroad, engulfing two passenger trains in flames. Rescue workers worked frantically to aid the passengers, but only 723 could be saved. The rest perished. Many of the 500 victims were children bound for holiday camps by the Black Sea. ‘‘My sister and my aunt are somewhere here in these ashes,’’ said Natalya Khovanska as she stumbled between the remains of the trains, which were still smoldering. The explosion was estimated to have been equal to ten thousand tons of TNT, and it felled all...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • 9 Cycle 23
      (pp. 113-132)

      The instruments on board NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were routinely keeping watch on the Sun on April 7, 1997, when the Extreme Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT) camera picked up a typical garden-variety, class-C6 solar flare in progress. Scientists back on Earth watched while a shock wave from the flare passed through the local gases in the solar corona like the waves from a pebble dropped into a pond. It was a beautiful event to watch, looking for all the world like some artful animation rather than the awesome detonation that it actually was. In minutes, a ring of...

  7. Part III, The Future

    • 10 Through a Crystal Ball
      (pp. 135-160)

      When CMEs do make it to the Earth, the compressed magnetic fields and plasma in their leading edges smash into the geomagnetic field like a battering ram. Across a million-mile-wide wall of plasma, the CME pummels the geomagnetic field. Such niceties as whether the polarities are opposed or not make little difference to the outcome. The CME pressure can push the geomagnetic field so that it lays bare the orbits of geosynchronous communication satellites on the dayside of the Earth, exposing them to wave after wave of energetic particles. When the fields are opposed, particles from the CME wall invade...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 161-170)

    Sometimes we work too hard to make coincidences into real cause and effect: recall the example of the Exxon Valdez accident during the March 1989 space weather event. And sometimes it’s not easy to grasp just how complex space weather issues have become in the last ten years. There are many facets to the story and, like a diamond, the impression you get depends on your perspective. When I first started learning about this subject, I was overwhelmed by the lack of careful documentation, and the impossibility of ever finding it, for many of the outages I had heard about....

  9. Notes
    (pp. 171-182)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-202)
  11. Figure and Plate Credits
    (pp. 203-204)
  12. Index
    (pp. 205-207)