NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center today posted its monthly update of the ongoing sunspot cycle of the Sun. I have posted the new graph for April below the fold.
As I have noted for the past year, the Sun has followed a very consistent up-and-down pattern as it has ramped up to solar maximum. Several months of steep sunspot number increase is then followed by several months of sunspot number decline. Since the increase has always been more than the decline, the sum has thus produced the rise toward maximum.
In March the Sun’s activity jumped upward after three months of steep decline. If the up-and-down pattern described above was to continue, the Sun’s activity should have continued to rise in April. It did not. Instead, the number of sunspots dropped.
Not only does this drop fail to show a ramp up to solar maximum, it also makes difficult the predictions of solar scientists for the magnitude of the upcoming solar maximum. If you look closely at this month’s graph, you will see that the blue line that shows the overall trends has ceased going up, but instead shows a stall. It seems increasingly unlikely that the maximum will reach the predicted numbers as shown by the red line of the graph.
Not surprisingly, the solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center have once again revised their prediction for the upcoming solar maximum, dropping their predicted sunspot number at maximum from 61 to 60, noting as they have earlier that this maximum will be the weakest in a hundred years.
Meanwhile, the public relations machine at NOAA is gearing up for its annual Space Weather Enterprise Forum, where they spend a day convincing credulous reporters who don’t know very much and like to believe everything a government worker tells them that we are all going to die from the upcoming solar maximum. As their press release and webpage states so threateningly:
As we approach the next peak of solar activity expected in 2013, our Nation faces multiplying uncertainties from increasing reliance on space weather-affected technologies for communications, navigation, security, and other activities, many of which underpin our national infrastructure and economy. We also face increasing exposure to space weather-driven human health risks as trans-polar flights and space activities, including space tourism and space commercialization, increase.
As I noted last year, this annual PR campaign has almost nothing to do with the real story — that the Sun continues to under perform predictions — and more to do with drumming up funding from Congress.
Obviously, the PR people at NOAA think that they have to convince everyone that the Sun is going to fry us in order to get money from Congress for new facilities and Sun-tracking satellites. And it is true that even during this weak maximum the Sun can still be dangerous. For example, one of the largest sunspots in years (shown on the left) has appeared on the Sun’s face, and is slowly rotating into a position where it could send a flare and coronal mass ejection directly at the Earth. Understanding this process and being able to predict and track it is essential in order to protect our modern technological society.
Nonetheless, crying wolf is not a good way to convince anyone that this research needs to be done. By focusing on the threat of a strong maximum — when a weak maximum is coming — NOAA risks losing all credibility. Moreover, even if NOAA should get its funding, it will do so under a false pretense that will require it to study the wrong thing — a strong maximum — when the real need is to study a Sun that might not be producing any sunspots at all.
Rather than falsely claiming that the upcoming solar maximum is going to be deadly, NOAA’s PR people should focus on our need to understand why the Sun’s solar cycle shifts from strong and weak cycles, and even sometimes shuts down its production of sunspots entirely, for decades at a time. As I even noted earlier today, there is growing evidence that the Sun’s solar cycle has a significant influence on the Earth’s climate, with a lack of sunspots strongly linked to a cooling climate. And if the Sun is about to enter another Grand Minimum, with no sunspots for decades at a time, we need to know how much that lack is going to cool the climate of the Earth in the coming decades.