When a front-page story in The Maui News on March 8 warned of potential disruption in Earth's magnetic field from a major solar storm, it focused on effects in North America. There was nothing about Hawaii, beyond a suggestion that a solar blast could affect satellite communications and global positioning systems.
As it turned out, the March 6 solar storm had minimal effects, mostly generating auroral displays not seen from Hawaii.
Media attention to threats of solar storms may increase this year because of Mayan calendar doomsday myths pinpointing 2012. It doesn't help that NASA forecast in 2006 that the 2012 solar maximum - an increase in solar activity during an 11-year cycle - would be more active. The NASA forecast was described as "unprecedented."
So far, it is also unsubstantiated, and NASA has downgraded the 2006 forecast.
There is sunspot activity in the sun's "atmosphere," and there have been a number of solar flares. The March 6 event, classified as an X-class coronal mass ejection, was the largest, but the blast apparently was more of a glancing blow than a direct hit on the Earth's magnetosphere.
While sunspot activity will continue, Hawaii solar physicist Jeff Kuhn says the current solar cycle is mostly demonstrating what astronomers don't know, even with more data than ever from an assortment of instruments on Earth and in orbiting observatories launched over the past two decades.
"This cycle, we've done the worst and our understanding of the solar cycle is sorely lacking," he says. "This cycle is more than a factor of 2 smaller than we first thought - and long delayed, by two years, from when it should have come."
Kuhn, lead solar astronomer with the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy, says researchers have accumulated data on solar cycles through three full 11-year cycles, testing their knowledge "by trying to predict the strength and arrival time of solar maximum."
Coronal mass ejections are massive explosions in the sun's corona that spew billions of tons of energized particles, causing electromagnetic surges that can penetrate and distort the Earth's protective magnetosphere. In 1859, a flare observed by astronomer Richard Carrington was followed by auroras seen as far south as the Caribbean while electrical surges in telegraph lines sparked fires in offices. A 1972 event damaged AT&T communications lines while a 1989 flare caused surges in electrical transmission lines that shut down Canadian generators and melted transformers. Other events have disrupted radio transmissions and damaged satellites.
"We're influenced by short-term changes in the sun because of the technology we use, such as communications satellites," Kuhn says. "We, for example, would be very affected if a solar flare were to knock out all of the weather satellites that we rely on for early warning about hurricanes.
"Being able to diagnose the sun is like the problem of hurricanes. We can't change the course of a hurricane, but we surely want to be able to project the trajectory. With solar physics, it's about seeing what is coming and being able to project the direction it will take."
A better understanding of what makes the sun tick is essential to a civilization relying on technologies sensitive to the sun's eruptions. Kuhn, who designed the Solar-C telescope housed at the Mees Observatory on Haleakala, said building understanding is the reason for the planned Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, based on the Solar-C design but with 10 times the observing power.
"You might compare it to examining a wristwatch from 10 feet away and trying to figure out how it works. Of you can take off the back and examine it with a microscope. With the sun, we're still 10 feet away."
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday. An expanded version of this column is posted in the blog section of The Maui News website, www.mauinews.com.