For years, solar physicists have recognized the importance of the sun's "Great Conveyor Belt." A vast system of plasma currents called ‘meridional flows’ (akin to ocean currents on Earth) travel along the sun's surface, plunge inward around the poles, and pop up again near the sun's equator. These looping currents play a key role in the 11-year solar cycle. When sunspots begin to decay, surface currents sweep up their magnetic remains and pull them down inside the star; 300,000 km below the surface, the sun’s magnetic dynamo amplifies the decaying magnetic fields. Re-animated sunspots become buoyant and bob up to the surface like a cork in water—voila! A new solar cycle is born.
To study the problem, Munoz-Jaramillo used computer simulations to model the Sun's behavior over 210 activity cycles spanning some 2,000 years. He specifically looked at the role of the plasma rivers that circulate from the Sun's equator to higher latitudes. These currents flow much like Earth's ocean currents: rising at the equator, streaming toward the poles, then sinking and flowing back to the equator. At a typical speed of 40 miles per hour, it takes about 11 years to make one loop.