Scientists Pinpoint Source of Sun's Magnetic Field Closer to Surface


New Study Upends Understanding of Sun's Magnetic Field Origins

In a finding that rewrites long-held theories, new research published in the journal Nature indicates the sun's powerful magnetic field originates much closer to the surface than previously thought.

The study, led by Northwestern University and an international team, suggests the magnetic field that drives solar activity like sunspots and eruptions actually generates around 20,000 miles below the sun's surface - not over 130,000 miles deep in the solar interior as decades of prevailing scientific models had proposed.

"We still don't understand the sun well enough to make accurate predictions" of solar weather, admitted lead author Geoffrey Vasil of the University of Edinburgh. "But these new findings will be an important step toward finally resolving this mysterious process."

Using complex calculations run on a NASA supercomputer, the researchers' data points to the sun's magnetic dynamo being seated relatively higher up compared to existing models. This could have profound implications for explaining and potentially forecasting the sun's cyclical magnetic activity and related phenomena.

The sun's magnetism flips polarity every 11 years in a cycle marked by increasing sunspot activity and solar flares around the solar equator. At its peak, these energetic events can trigger geomagnetic storms and release coronal mass ejections of plasma toward Earth - events like the famed 1859 "Carrington Event" that fried telegraph lines worldwide.

"If something like the Carrington Event were to occur today, we'd have it much worse," cautioned Daniel Lecoanet, a co-author from Northwestern University. "It would cause a solar radiation storm, shutting down power grids, cell phones, satellites, even airplanes. The resulting global power outages could last for months."

While more research is still needed, the new model linking sunspots to magnetic dynamo behavior relatively high in the solar atmosphere opens avenues for potentially improving predictions of when the next powerful solar storm may erupt.

"These findings demonstrate some interesting links between sunspots and the sun's magnetic activity," said Lecoanet. "It will be an important step toward finally resolving how to forecast the sun's intense energy emissions."

As humanity becomes increasingly reliant on technology vulnerable to solar storms, better understanding and forecasting the sun's cyclical magnetic turmoil takes on new urgency. The new insights could ultimately help protect vital infrastructure when the next Carrington-level event inevitably strikes.