Sunspots and the danger of crying wolf

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It’s that time of year again, buckos. Every June, like clockwork, stories and op-eds like these start to flood the media:

Not surprisingly, these stories always happen about the same time our federal bureaucracy puts together a one day June propaganda event called the Space Weather Enterprise Forum, designed to sell to journalists the idea that we are all gonna die if we don’t spend gazillions of dollars building satellites for tracking the sun’s behavior. Along with this conference come numerous press releases, written by the conference’s backers. Here for example is a quote from a press release emailed to me and many journalists:

Recent activity on the Sun, captured in stunning imagery from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and the resulting threat of significant radiation storms and radio blackouts here on Earth are vivid reminders of our need to better understand the science, improve our forecasts and warnings, and better prepare ourselves for severe space weather storms as the next solar maximum approaches.

The problem for these fear-mongers, however, is that shortly before their forum the scientists who actually study the sun held another press conference, where they laid out in exquisite detail the sun’s astonishing recent decline in activity, and how the next solar maximum will likely be the weakest in centuries and might very well be the last maximum we will see for decades to come.

In other words, the annual effort by government bureaucrats to drum up funding for more space weather facilities has collided head on with the facts.

That there are science journalists from so many major news organization so easily conned into buying this fear-mongering is pitiful enough. More significant, however, is the fact that this annual effort at crying wolf has not been very successful. For years Congress has not funded any new space weather satellites, and doesn’t appear ready to do so in the future, especially with the present budget crisis.

The sad thing about this whole affair is that there actually is a need for at least one new space weather satellite. At the moment we only have one working spacecraft, the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), capable of giving us an hour warning of the arrival of a powerful solar storm. Power companies use ACE’s space weather alerts to reconfigure the power grid accordingly. This saves money, as to keep the grid configured full time in this manner is more expensive.

ACE was launched in 1997, with an planned lifespan of about five years. It is now been in space almost fourteen years. Though the spacecraft appears robust, it has no backup. It probably isn’t wise for us to rely on this single failure point, especially one that so overdue for replacement.

So, how do we get ACE replaced? Well, crying wolf won’t do it. The more the space weather community screams “We’re all gonna die!” the less anyone believes them, especially in this era of declining solar activity. Instead, they need to focus the discussion on how space weather is no different than the daily weather report, and how our technological and electronic society needs to have the ability to track space weather in the same manner.

More importantly, they need to convince Congress — and the public — that they can replace ACE cheaply. According to my sources, this can be done, by using the Al Gore Triana satellite that is sitting unused at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. And maybe the space weather community should offer a trade-off, especially in today’s budget climate: cut something else that is redundant and less important in exchange for getting the cash for a space weather satellite they consider more essential.

Because until they stop crying wolf, their cries will continue to fall on deaf ears.


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