Why Hams Care About Solar Activity

As we learned in an earlier post on the ionosphere, the real magic in ham radio is skywave propagation where HF  band (and sometimes VHF) signals can travel well beyond line of sight (over the horizon), even to the other side of the planet if conditions are right and radio waves may bend back to earth in the ionosphere.

The sun is largely responsible for energizing the ionosphere and affecting its quality (height, density, thickness, disturbance).  Unfortunately for hams, solar activity is highly variable, not constant.  There are periods of excellent skywave propagation when the sun is busy and then times of poor propagation when the sun is quiet.

Solar_Cycle_Montage
Montage of Sun’s activity over 10 years (solar cycle 23)

This topic is very complex and not completely understood.  Study is ongoing and radio amateurs have contributed greatly to the science; much has been learned in the last 100 years or so since radio became a real thing.   Great detail is found below in some excellent web links.  A brief summary of how solar activity influences the ionosphere is presented here:

  • Our sun tends to be active in 11 year cycles, on average
  • Sunspot counts are a general indicator of solar activity
  • Propagation on higher frequencies is more influenced by solar activity than the lower frequency bands.
  • Ionospheric condition is influenced by the Earth’s magnetic flux lines.
  • Earth’s magnetic field is strongly influenced by solar wind (largely a day/night phenomenon but solar wind can spike with disturbances).
  • Solar flares, coronal mass ejections (CME), and coronal holes cause geomagnetic storms which affect or disrupt radio communication and create noise.

Solar/Space weather is a study of how solar events affect the earth’s magnetosphere.  A/K (long/short-term) indexes measure the stability of Earth’s magnetic field.

Hams worldwide who are active on HF and VHF bands pay a lot of attention to solar activity because of how it affects propagation and noise levels.  QRZ features N0NBH’s graphic summary of important solar and geomagnetic conditions on their main page as shown below.  Some hams and ham websites include this data on their own pages as well, so you may see this sort of info a lot.

S-T Data QRZ

Presently (2018-2019) we have days on end with no sunspot numbers, resulting in awful HF propagation (note sunspot number SN=0 above).

Solar Activity Level

Despite these poor conditions that limit decent phone (voice) and even CW (Morse) QSOs, hams can still make contact with domestic and international stations using some of the newer digital modes which can decode extremely weak (inaudible) signals.

We are hopefully approaching the end of the current solar minimum with dreams of increasing solar activity in the coming several years.

Solar activity is so important to hams that there are 16 related questions in the General class license exam question pool (only two with the limited privilege Tech pool).  Some of these are pasted below:

G3A11-2015

T3C10-2018

G3A02-2015

G3A09-2015

G3A15-2015


Useful Web Links on HF propagation, the ionosphere and solar activity:

The Sun, the Earth, the Ionosphere  ARRL

Here Comes the Sun!  ARRL

K7VVV Explains Propagation Numbers  ARRL

Sunspots and Propagation  Ham Radio School

HF Propagation Tools and Solar Data  N0NBH

All of your solar and aurora needs in one place!  SolarHam

Space Weather Prediction Center  US NOAA/NWS

Solar Activity & HF Propagation  FDIM Symposium – 2005

HF Radio Propagation and Sunspots  electronicsnotes

How and why sunspots affect propagation in HF bands?  StackExchange

Solar Terrestrial Data  Experimental Aircraft Info

HF Propagation Tutorial  Luxorion

Solar Weather Introduction  Austin ARC

 

 

 

One thought on “Why Hams Care About Solar Activity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s