It seems we must prepare ourselves for a surprise.
Our Sun is currently undergoing a number of unusual changes and researchers do not understand all of them.
As the Sun is entering a period of reduced activity it can result in lower temperatures on Earth.
A recent study indicates the current sunspot activity is similar to records from a 70-year Maunder Minimum period in the 17th century in which London's
Thames froze over and cherry blossoms bloomed later than usual in Kyoto.
If this trend continues, the north pole could complete its flip in May 2012. This would result in the creation of a four-pole magnetic structure in the sun, with two new poles created
in the vicinity of the equator of our closest star.
The study was performed by Officials of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the Riken research foundation.
During the Maunder Minimum, temperatures are estimated to have been about 2.5 degrees lower than in the second half of the 20th century.
Researchers believe something similar is happening now.
Approximately every 11 years the magnetic field on the sun reverses completely - the north magnetic pole switches to south, and vice versa.
It's as if a bar magnet slowly lost its magnetic field and regained it in the opposite direction, so the positive side becomes the negative side.
But, of course, the sun is not a simple bar magnet and the causes of the switch, not to mention the complex tracery of moving magnetic fields
throughout the eleven-year cycle, are not easy to map out.
Image credit: National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, The Asahi Shimbun
Mapping such fields, however, is a crucial part of understanding how - and, in turn, when - the sun will exercise its next flip.
This flip coincides with the greatest solar activity seen on the sun in any given cycle, known as "solar maximum."
While the cycle unfolds with seeming regularity every 11 years, in two upcoming papers scientists highlight just how asymmetrical this process actually is.
Currently the polarity at the north of the sun appears to have decreased close to zero - that is, it seems to be well into its polar flip from
magnetic north to south -- but the polarity at the south is only just beginning to decrease.
"Right now, there's an imbalance between the north and the south poles," says Jonathan Cirtain, a space scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
"The north is already in transition, well ahead of the south pole, and we don't understand why."
In 2008 in the Northern Hemisphereof the Sun (left) Hinude observed large patches of negative polarity, shown in orange. In 2011, the same area
showed much smaller patches and a
more even distribution of negative and positive (blue) regions. Credit: JAXA/Hinode.
While scientists had predicted that the next flip would begin from May 2013, the solar observation satellite Hinode found that the north pole of the
sun had started flipping about a year earlier than expected. There was no noticeable change in the south pole.
The international research team led by Saku Tsuneta, a professor at NAOJ, has been performing the monthly polar observations with Hinode from September
2008 to this date.
So, it seems we must prepare ourselves for a surprise after all. If the north pole is already flipping, the Sun may soon have not two, but four poles!
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