Ever since the sun started to perk up back in 2009 I've seriously pondered the question: "From our location under the auroral oval is the increased solar activity a good thing or a bad thing?"
At the bottom of the 11-year solar cycle, with days on end of zero sunspots, the bands would open and close like clockwork, depending on the auroral activity. 20m would come to life most days and (especially during the spring and fall equinoxes) provide reasonable propagation to anywhere on earth. The lower bands would open any time there was no aurora and with low solar activity that also happened on a fairly regular basis. The upper bands didn't even exist. Some weak activity on 15m once in a while in the middle of the afternoon and nothing to be heard ever on 10m. The only thing that stirred up the aurora was high solar wind speeds caused by coronal holes. These would come around every 27 days like clockwork allowing fairly accurate predictions of whether band conditions would be good or bad on any particular day.
Now, with the continuing solar maximum, things are very different. Streams of solar nastiness from flares and CMEs pour into the polar regions wiping out the bands for days at a time. The aurora is omnipresent, and the K-index rarely dips below 2. Now it is the lower bands turn to be non-existent. Nothing to be heard from here on 80m or 160m. 40m can go either way. Heavily affected by the D-region absorption it stays mostly quiet but on occasion low auroral activity will allow it to perk up somewhat. The upper bands provide the best communications. 20m and 15m stay open for hours on end and when the solar flux gets high enough the 10m band can push through the aurora with strong enough signals to overcome the heavy absorption. It is still very much hit and miss, though. You just never know from one day to the next whether there will be anything at all on the radio.
So what to make of all this? I have finally reached the conclusion that any solar activity is better than none. I've been having just as much fun working DX on the higher bands as I used to on the lower bands. Recently, I had been listening for Elmo, 3C0BYP, on Annobon Island off the west African coast. Yesterday evening he finally popped up on 20m in the middle of his night time. I had no trouble working him for an all-time-new-one. This morning, still somewhat pleased with myself for the previous day's DX, I got up and turned on the radio again. As I sipped my coffee and tuned through the bands I heard many European stations coming over the pole on 10m. This alone doesn't really excite me anymore (it sure did last fall though!) but while I was listening a 10m DX spot came up for Carson, ZS8C, on Marion Island in the far south Indian Ocean. About half way between South Africa and Antarctica, this is one of the most distant DXCC entities from here at 11,000 miles away. I had listened for ZS8C many times in the past but had never before heard even a whisper on any band. This time I could hear a whisper. Down in the noise and not quite strong enough for 100% copy but audible nonetheless. I called a few times but soon had to turn off the radio to get ready for work. A half hour later I had a few extra minutes before I left for the day and decided to quickly fire up the radio again and take another listen. This time ZS8C was perfect copy peaking at S5 and five minutes later he was in the log for another new one. On 10m no less! That decided the question for me right then and there. Working Marion Island on 10m easily makes up for many days of no signals at all.
Now I'm ready to begin the search for an answer to my new question: "To get into 'Ham Heaven' do you need to 'work 'em all' (all 340 DXCC entities) AND have '5-band DXCC' too or is either one by itself good enough for admission...?"