The Sun operates on an 11-year cycle, alternating between active and quiet periods. We are currently in a quiet period, with few sunspots on the sun’s surface and fewer solar flares, though the next cycle of activity has begun.
It is expected to peak around 2012, bringing lots of sunspots, flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). CMEs can interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere, causing problems for satellites, communications, and power grids.
This upcoming active period now looks like it will be more intense than the previous one, which peaked around 2006, some scientists think. The reason is the changes in the sun’s alignment.
During the last peak, solar fields hitting the Earth were first anti-aligned then aligned. Anti-aligned fields can energize particles, but in this case, the energy came before the particles themselves, which doesn’t create much of a fuss in terms of geomagnetic storms and disruptions.
But the next cycle will see aligned, then anti-aligned fields, in theory amplifying the effects of the storms as they hit.