November 20, 2009, Updated September 24, 2012

Researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) have discovered that observations of ordinary, common lightning strikes hitting Earth can be assessed to use sunspots to measure the pulse or rotation rate of the sun and to make long-range predictions about the planet’s future.

The serendipitous finding could provide a new tool for meteorologists, ecologists and space scientists as they study the effects of sunspots on climate and navigational accuracy, says Prof. Colin Price, head of TAU’s Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science, who discovered a correlation between electrical charges produced by lightning in the Earth’s ionosophere and the 27-day rotation of the sun.

Sunspots are temporary dark blotches that seem to float over the sun’s surface. They are caused by intense magnetic activity which inhibits convection, forming areas of reduced temperatures.

During years like this one, when sunspots can’t be seen clearly, the work of scientists in the new scientific field called “Space Weather” is hindered. They study the interaction between the sun and the Earth’s environment.

Thanks to the unintentional discovery by Price and his graduate student Yuval Reuveni, science now has a more definitive and reliable tool for measuring the sun’s rotation when sunspots aren’t visible- and also when they are. The research was published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Space Physics.

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