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The Question

(Submitted May 06, 1998)

How do sunspots affect the earth? Why?

The Answer

The primary effect on the Earth is on our ionosphere. This is the very upper part of the atmosphere. Increased sunspot activity frequently accompanies an increase in the outflow of matter from the Sun in the form of a "solar wind". Charged particles in this wind can interact with atoms in the upper atmosphere and sometimes wreak havoc with our communications systems. It can interfere with the operation of satellites by introducing background static. During periods of heightened solar activity, the Earth's upper atmosphere swells up slightly in response to the extra heating, which in turn increases the rate of decay of satellites in low Earth orbit.

You can learn more about sunspots on our Solar System archive page, under "The Sun":

J.K. Cannizzo
(for "Ask an Astrophysicist")

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