Cosmic ray radiation decreases as the new solar cycle gains strength

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Cosmic ray radiation from space. Picture: L. Han/IAEA

Cosmic rays are permanently hitting Earth’s surface… Sometimes more, sometimes less… New data from cosmic ray balloons show that radiation levels in the air above our heads is decreasing as the new Solar Cycle 25 gains strength. Here are the latest data:

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Cosmic ray radiation is decreasing since the beginning of Solar Cycle 25. Picture via Spaceweather

The plot shows cosmic rays in the stratosphere, measured by radiation sensors scientists from SpaceWeather launch almost once a week from the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.

Recent flights confirm that radiation levels are decreasing for the first time since 2015.

What are cosmic rays?

Cosmic rays come from deep space – mostly from supernova explosions. To reach the inner solar system, they have to fight their way through the sun’s protective magnetic field. Once cosmic rays reach Earth, they crash into the top of our atmosphere, creating a spray of secondary radiation, which we measure using high-altitude balloons.

Why does cosmic ray radiation fluctuates?

Atmospheric radiation shot up in 2015-2019 because then-Solar Cycle 24 was decaying. The sun’s magnetic field became weak and uncomplicated; cosmic rays from deep space found it easier to reach us. Our highest measurements in late 2019 correspond with NOAA’s official date of Solar Minimum.

Now the sun is waking up again. New Solar Cycle 25 is strengthening the sun’s magnetic shield, and atmospheric radiation is dropping.

Solar magnetic fields are strengthening, providing a stiffer barrier to cosmic rays trying to enter the solar system. The decline of cosmic radiation above California is a sign that new Solar Cycle 25 is gaining strength.

Who cares about cosmic rays?

Cosmic rays are a surprisingly “down to Earth” form of space weather. They can seed clouds, trigger lightning, and penetrate commercial airplanes.

cosmic ray raviation versus altitude
Plot of cosmic ray radiation versus altitude. The dose of radiation increases with altitude above sea level. Picture via SpaceWeather

In this plot, dose rates are expessed as multiples of sea level. For instance, we see that boarding a plane that flies at 25,000 feet exposes passengers to dose rates ~10x higher than at sea level. At 40,000 feet, the multiplier is closer to 50x. The higher you fly, the more radiation you will absorb.

Are cosmic rays dangerous?

According to a study from the Harvard T.H. Chan school of public health, crews of aircraft have higher rates of cancer than the general population. The researchers listed cosmic rays, irregular sleep habits, and chemical contaminants as leading risk factors.

Somewhat more controversial studies (#1, #2) link cosmic rays with cardiac arrhythmias and sudden cardiac death. [SpaceWeather]

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  1. I hope United Airlines has massive cosmic radiation burns.

    In the past, I had to deal with these whiney bitches. Never seen such a bunch of crybabies and tantrum throwers in my life. Worst airline company I ever had to deal with, and everybody in our office hated them. Crash and burn you drunk losers.

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