Washington, Jan 8 : The identification of the first sunspot belonging to a new 11 year old solar cycle, is believed by scientists to be the harbinger of increased solar storms, which would bring down power grids, disrupt critical communications, and threaten astronauts with harmful radiation.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the new solar cycle's first sunspot appeared in the sun's Northern Hemisphere.
A sunspot is an area of highly organized magnetic activity on the surface of the sun.
The new sunspot, identified as 10,981, is the latest visible spot to appear since NOAA began numbering them on January 5, 1972. Its high-latitude location at 27 degrees North, and its negative polarity leading to the right in the Northern Hemisphere are clear-cut signs of a new solar cycle.
The new 11-year cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, is expected to build gradually, with the number of sunspots and solar storms reaching a maximum by 2011 or 2012, though devastating storms can occur at any time.
During a solar storm, highly charged material ejected from the sun may head toward Earth, where it can bring down power grids, disrupt critical communications, and threaten astronauts with harmful radiation.
Storms can also knock out commercial communications satellites and swamp Global Positioning System (GPS) signals. Even routine activities such as talking on a cell phone or getting money from an ATM machine can suddenly halt over a large part of the globe because of these storms.
"This sunspot is like the first robin of spring," said solar physicist Douglas Biesecker of NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center. "In this case, it's an early omen of solar storms that will gradually increase over the next few years," he added.
But, according to NOAA experts, many more sunspots with Solar Cycle 24 traits must emerge before scientists can consider the new cycle dominant, with the potential for more frequent storms.