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Weather: Solar activity less than expected in maxima cycle

Thu., Dec. 27, 2012, midnight

With 2013 almost upon us, we’re soon going to hit the expected peak of this current solar maxima cycle.

The sun is on an 11-year cycle. Since early 2012, sunspot numbers, or storms on the sun, have averaged between 60 and 80 sunspots, making this one of the smallest maxima cycles in about 100 years. On Nov. 17, there were 163 storms, yet on Dec. 7 there were a meager 23 solar storms. During the last major solar maxima in the late 1990s, we were seeing 200 to 300 sunspots per day. The Earth’s average temperature was also at its highest level in 1998.

Despite the lower-than-expected solar activity, there likely will be additional brief periods of increased solar storms between now and at least March. We could see a few moderate solar flares approaching the Earth that may have the potential to cause damage to satellites, power grids and electronic devices. However, the chances of a damaging solar flare are not very high. In 1989, a solar storm was strong enough to shut down a power plant in Canada.

On another note, sea-surface temperatures along the equatorial regions have cooled over the last few months. We’re currently in a La Nada, or in-between the warmer El Niño and colder La Niña events.

There are a few computer models that project a rebound to warmer sea-surface temperatures in early to mid-2013. However, indications are currently building to a brief and weak La Niña event instead of an El Niño, so time will tell.

In middle to late 2013, however, it looks like we’ll see another round of cooling that would lead to a new or stronger La Niña sea-surface temperature phenomenon. If this turns out to be the case, the next winter season across the Inland Northwest could be snowy.

Earlier this year, sea-surface temperatures were warmer than normal. Once the ocean cooling began, our weather patterns changed. The colder waters near the South American coastline may be a reason why we’re seeing increased snowfall. Remember, we had our biggest snow years during a La Niña event. But ocean waters are not nearly as chilly in late 2012, so snowfall should be near to slightly above normal for the season.

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