The Sun makes the scientists look good — for now!


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NOAA today released its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle, covering the period of May 2013. As I have done every month for the past three years, I have posted this latest graph, with annotations to give it context, below the fold.

For the third month in a row, the Sun has shown increased sunspot activity. Though the total activity continues to remain well below all predictions, it appears that the Sun is going to produce a double-peaked maximum, as predicted by some solar scientists back in March. Be aware however that this prediction isn’t based on any real understanding of the physical processes that produce sunspots but is instead based on the fact that the Sun has sometimes done this in the past. If you asked these scientists why the Sun sometimes produces a double-peaked maximum they will wave their arms about but will really not be able to tell you.


May Solar Cycle graph

I have once again added the predictions of the solar science community to give the graph context. The green curves in the graph show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction.

This string of active months has also prompted the solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight center to once again revise their prediction for the solar maximum. Instead of a sunspot maximum number 66 coming in the fall of 2013, they now claim the maximum number will be 67 and will occur during the summer. As they make changes like this routinely, this newest “prediction” is not really worth the electrons they used to send it out over the internet, especially coming as it does mere months from maximum.

I suspect we might get another strong month of activity in June, but the data continue to suggest that Sun’s maximum will be over by sometime this fall, when we will begin to see a steady ramp down in the number of sunspots.

It is then that we will await the answer to what is the big scientific question in the solar science community: Will the Sun then enter a prolonged Grand Minimum, with no sunspots for decades and similar to the Maunder Minimum of the 1600s, or will the eleven-year solar cycle continue as it has for the past three hundred or so years?

The answer to that question is crucial, for two reasons. First, a Grand Minimum now, with our modern space-based technology, will give scientists an opportunity to study the Sun — as it behaves in a relatively unusual manner — at a resolution never before available. With such good data, they might actually figure out the solar dynamo that produces sunspots, a process that they presently really do yet not understand.

Second, and more important, a Grand Minimum now would help climate scientists figure out how important the Sun is to climate change. Most climate scientists dismiss the Sun’s solar cycle, considering the changes during its eleven year cycle too small to influence the climate. A Grand Minimum, however, might change those opinions significantly.

Moreover, though the Maunder Minimum in the 1600s coincided with the Little Ice Age, our data on the Sun’s brightness during that time period is simply not good enough to tell us if it was the minimum that caused the lower global temperatures. Another minimum now would help answer that question.

Knowing these facts, with good robust data, is essential if we are to get a true and unbiased understanding of the Earth’s climate.

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3 comments

  • If we do enter another minimum, it certainly may prove to be able to allow us to really determine how much influence the Sun’s solar cycles have on the Earth’s weather. But it would also produce big economic and social problems, to start.

    Last night, I was reading Gibbon’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, volume 1. Specifically the chapter on the origin and nature of Germany or the Germans (since Germany didn’t exist as a country until very recently). It is interesting that Gibbon references ancient writers and other contemporary scholars of his time in describing how much colder Germany was during antiquity. He doesn’t reference exact dates, but he describes the Rhine, the Seine, and the Thames freezing completely or enough for heavy things to be transported across them. He also describes wine freezing into blocks, inside drinking vessels.

    Gibbon attributes the climate of Germany later becoming warmer as the Germanic peoples cut down forests and begin to cultivate agriculture. I’m thinking it is more likely the German people began to plant things only after the climate became warmer, not the other way around. We know that sometime later, it was warm enough for vineyards to be planted as far north as northern England. Then the climate became much colder for centuries.

    My point is: observed climate change is normal. Obviously, there are political opinions, not scientific ones, that are driving the debate from the left, rather than science. And the pursuit of a growth industry: carbon credit trading.

  • Phil Berardelli

    In terms of helping to clarify the scientific debate, if you can call it that — because the AGW advocates have refused to consider anything other than their own orthodoxy — this documented decrease in solar activity is a godsend. If it continues, and if global atmospheric temperatures likewise continue to stabilize or decline, we’ll soon have a much better idea of the role solar forcing plays. On the downside, cooler temperatures can create many hardships for the people of Europe and the northern latitudes, though such hardships would pale in comparison to what would happen to humanity during the onset of a new ice age.

  • greg

    By looking at the results of the actual real data vs. the predicted model values, I would think that the solar scientists are using similar computer models to predict solar activity and climate warming. Always predicting off the mark… high and inaccurate. To me this means they are wrong and cannot (yet?) be relied on to predict how the climate will change in the future.

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