The sun’s magnetic poles will flip in 2024. Here’s what that means

A plane passes in front of the glowing sun as it makes its final approach at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020.
A plane passes in front of the glowing sun as it makes its final approach at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, Oct. 5, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The sun’s magnetic poles are about to flip, and it could cause lower latitude northern lights, more intense solar storms and potential danger for astronauts and satellite communication. However, experts predict there’s no overt cause for concern.

Many stars and planets, including the Earth and the sun, have magnetic fields. However, these magnetic fields aren’t stable, and they cyclically switch during peak solar cycles, according to Harvard-Smithsonian’s Center for Astrophysics.

Paul Charbonneau, a solar physicist at the University of Montreal, commented on the sun’s magnetic cycles, saying, “We are indeed seeing the sun more active than it’s been in probably something like 20 years,” per Vox.

While the Earth’s magnetic north pole switches infrequently to the south and vice versa (ranging from once every 10 thousand years to once every 50 million years), the sun’s magnetic poles switch consistently every 11 years, according to the United States Geological Survey.

So, while the Earth’s last reversal happened around 780,000 years ago, the sun’s happened in 2013. Scientists predict the next shift will happen at some point in 2024.

Why do the sun’s poles flip?

Electric currents in the sun are generated “by the flow of ... hot, ionized gases,” and magnetic fields are the byproduct, according to NASA. Scientists refer to this process as a “dynamo.”

NASA explained that the dynamo “reorganizes itself” at the peak of each roughly decadelong solar cycle.

Stanford solar physicist Phil Scherrer described the process to NASA: “The sun’s polar magnetic fields weaken, go to zero and then emerge again with the opposite polarity. This is a regular part of the solar cycle.”

Can magnetic pole reversal cause damage?

The sun’s magnetic pole reversals typically bring more intense solar storms, which can cause disruption to satellites, communication and GPS in space and disable parts of the electrical grid, according to Earth Sky.

NASA physicists James Green and Scott Boardsen published an article on a famous example of intense solar storms to the journal Advances in Space Research. They described “the great geomagnetic storm” that happened in the summer of 1859 as the “most famous space weather event in the last two hundred years.” It is commonly referred to as “The Carrington Event.”

Northern lights are typically located between 60 degrees and 75 degrees latitude. However that summer, intense auroras were recorded below 50 degrees, and scientists correlate their intensity with the sun producing more solar storms.

The researchers described those auroras through eye-witness accounts as “blood or deep crimson red” that were so bright you “could read a newspaper by.”

Another account published to the Rocky Mountain News came from campers in the Colorado Rockies who woke up to auroral light that was so bright, “some insisted it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast.”

Further west in San Francisco, the San Francisco Herald published a similar account: “The whole sky appeared to undulate something like a field of grain in a high wind; the waters of the Bay reflected the brilliant hues of the Aurora.”

Not only did the magnetic pole reversal create more vivid (and more southern) northern lights, it “wreaked havoc” on telegraph wires, as the South African National Space Agency described.

Specifically, Advances in Space Research wrote, “A significant portion of the world’s 200,000 km of telegraph lines were adversely affected,” were temporarily unusable and had “a real economic impact.”

What changes will 2024’s pole reversal bring?

While the Earth’s own magnetic field deflects solar storms, aerospace engineering professor at University of Colorado Boulder Delores Knipp explained how solar weather could impact life like it did during the Carrington Event.

She told Vox that intense solar storms “can actually open up Earth’s magnetic field and allow much more energy and mass to enter in through, and when that happens, then we tend to see all kinds of impacts.”

Similarly, astrophysicist Jose-Dias Do Nascimento told Harvard’s astrophysics center, “The changes throughout a magnetic cycle have effects throughout the Solar System and other planetary systems thanks to the influence of space weather.”

In cases like in 1859, solar storms “can interrupt electrical power on Earth” and be “very dangerous to satellites and astronauts,” the Smithsonian reported.

However, the National Solar Observatory reported there’s no need to panic, and the sun’s consistent polar flips are evidence that our star is functioning as scientists have predicted.

Mike Murray, program director at the Delta College Planetarium, predicted that this year’s pole reversal, which will likely happen between April and August, should be “nothing to worry about.”