It was a sight to behold and likely many space enthusiasts tuned in to the event. NASA live-streamed the historic event as the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center. While witnessing the launch in person at Cape Canaveral was, no doubt, breath-taking and one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments, viewing it remotely was also awe-inspiring. The added treat was seeing the on-board cameras trained on the unflappable astronauts.
After the launch was scrubbed earlier in the week, weather conditions on Saturday cooperated. That giant orb in the sky, our Sun, shone brightly, and foul weather remained at bay, at least long enough for the Dragon capsule to blast towards the heavens.
Likely few onlookers took much time to notice and appreciate the Sun; it’s one of the few constants in our world. Thankfully, that is the case since, without the Sun, we just wouldn’t be.
Don Day Jr., president and meteorologist with DayWeather, Inc., based in Cheyenne, has an appreciation on how the Sun affects our Earth and, especially, the weather.
“The Sun is everything, obviously,” Day said. “It makes everything happen.”
Currently the Sun is in what is called a “solar minimum.” That means the occurrence of sunspots is minimal. Until this week, the Sun was sunspot-free for the past 30 days. That long span was broken on June 2 when a tiny sunspot appeared. This could herald the start of Solar Cycle 25, although the actual determination of the start of the next cycle can take six to 12 months after the fact to confirm, since sunspot activity can come and go.
The Sun moves through its natural 11-year cycle, where its activity rises and falls, and sunspot numbers increase and decrease. The intensity of the cycles varies and Cycle 24 has been weak. This new sunspot could mark an awakening of the Sun that, over the next few years, will gradually increase. It is not certain yet, but if the Sun starts getting rowdier, solar minimum may be behind us and the Sun could be “waking up” again into Solar Cycle 25.
Day is particularly interested in activities on the Sun, especially sunspots, and how they influence Earth’s weather. It also has to do with cosmic rays, which are a real thing and not just jargon in science fiction. Much remains unknown about cosmic rays, but they are high-energy particles that come from outer space and also from our own solar system. They rain down on Earth from all directions.
When sunspot activity increases, the magnetic forces at play help shield the Earth from cosmic rays. As cosmic rays enter the atmosphere, their electric charge helps create aerosols that act as seeds to form clouds.
“Cosmic rays hitting Earth increase during solar minimum.” Day said. “These cosmic rays help clouds form since clouds need a particle to condensate around.”
The theory is that at solar minimum, with the increase in cosmic rays hitting Earth, there is an increase in cloud cover over the ocean by about two to three percent. That means less heat reaches the ground.
According to Day, Wyoming weather is particularly influenced by what happens out in the Pacific Ocean. When the Pacific waters cool, that can create a La Niña weather pattern. For us, when such a pattern develops, we get drought.
Day said he pays close attention to the water temperature in the Pacific for long-term Wyoming weather forecasts. The last drastic drought in Wyoming was in 2012. That was a few years after the solar minimum in 2009. Day explains the delay is because the water takes a while to cool, just like cooling of water in a bathtub.
Currently there is a slight cooling in the Pacific. It is worth watching to see if a La Niña pattern forms since it can have such an impact on Wyoming.
The 11-year solar cycles correlate fairly well with the ups and downs of climate, although it is certainly only a piece of the puzzle. Solar cycles are normal and, if you’re over the age of 11, you’ve lived through at least one such cycle and probably didn’t even know it.
“It’s compelling,” Day said. “At least where we live and the potential influence on the occurrence of a La Niña, solar activity is worth watching.”