Tag Archives: solarcycle

The Sun shows some signs of life

Earlier this week NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center published its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle. As I do every month, I’ve posted the newest graph below, showing the continuing slow rise in sunspots (blue/black lines) in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009 (red line).
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More press release journalism,
this time about sunspots

Did you hear the news? Scientists have solved the mystery of the missing sunspots!

You didn’t? Well, here’s some headlines and stories that surely prove it:

The trouble is that every one of these headlines is 100 percent wrong. The research, based on computer models, only found that when the plasma flow from the equator to the poles beneath the Sun’s surface slows down, the number of sunspots declines.
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The Massive February 15, 2011 X Flare on the Sun

An evening pause: On February 15, 2011, the Sun emitted its strongest flare in four years. Though the Sun continues to act relatively wimpy as it ramps up towards solar maximum, this flare was spectacular, mostly because we now have some amazing instruments in space to image and study it. This video does an excellent job explaining what was happening, as it happened. Watch, and enjoy.

And note, as powerful as this flare was, and despite the fact that it was pointed right at the Earth, it represented a relatively minor threat to our technological society, despite what some doomsayers might be claiming. A very active Sun can cause us problems, especially with power systems and electrical grids, but based on past experience during previous solar maximums, most power companies have taken careful steps to protect themselves from this risk. And with the Sun as weakly active as it is, the risks are further reduced. The doomsayers are simply shilling for more government research dollars.

The Sun’s continuing wimpiness

Get those winter coats out of storage! Yesterday NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center published its monthly update of the Sun’s sunspot cycle. I’ve posted the newest graph below, showing the continuing slow rise in sunspots (blue/black lines) in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009 (red line).

Though the sunspot count made a slight recovery in January, it was not enough to make up for the plunge in December. Essentially, the Sun continues to act like a sleepy kitten that really doesn’t want to wake up. This suggests that even the newest and wimpiest prediction for the next solar maximum, from solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center, is still overstating the Sun’s upcoming sunspot activity.

In the past a wimpy Sun has been linked to cold weather, for reasons that scientists as yet don’t quiet understand. And this next solar maximum continues to look like the wimpiest in more than 200 years (see the graph on this page)!

January sunspot graph

The solar maximum keep shrinking

Solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center have once again revised downward their prediction for the intensity of the next solar maximum. Key quote:

Current prediction for the next sunspot cycle maximum gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 59 in June/July of 2013. We are currently two years into Cycle 24 and the predicted size continues to fall.

If this prediction holds, the upcoming solar maximum could be the lowest since the cycle came back to life in around 1715 following the Maunder Minimum.

the solar cycle

A plunge in solar activity in December

The monthly update of the Sun’s developing sunspot cycle was published tonight by NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center. You can see the newest graph below, which shows the slow rise in sunspots (blue/black lines) in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009 (red line).

Not only does the Sun’s generally quiet trend continue, its activity took an additional plunge in December, dropping significantly from the previous month. This drop is probably due to the seven days of no sunspots that took place in mid-December.

All in all, we continue to head for the weakest maximum in two hundred years (see the graph on this page), which in the past meant very cold weather. Though scientists do not yet understand why the Sun does this or how these changes in solar activity influence the climate as much as they do, that this in now happening at a time when we have the technology to truly study it is an opportunity that must not be missed.

The December sunspot graph

Heading towards a Maunder Minimum

Though I have been saying that the Sun’s lack of sunspots the last two years suggests the possibility of that we might be facing an extended period without solar activity, I am not a solar scientist. Today, in a paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph website, a solar scientist says just that. Key quote:

One method that has yielded predictions consistently in the right range during the past few solar cycles is that of K. Schatten et al., whose approach is mainly based on the polar field precursor. The incipient cycle 24 [on-going right now] will probably mark the end of the Modern Maximum, with the Sun switching to a state of less strong activity.

The Sun is no longer blank

After six blank days, the Sun is once again showing spots. As I have mentioned several times in 2010, this might be the last time the Sun is blank for years to come as it ramps up to solar maximum. However, don’t bet on it, as the Sun’s activity has been way below all predictions. The upcoming solar maximum might very well be the first in centuries with blank days interspersed throughout.

The Sun is blank

For the first time since October 10, and only the third time since August, the Earth-facing side of the Sun is blank, showing no sunspots. All told, 2010 has only been blank 13% of the time, for a total of 46 blank days, with only 12 days left in the year. These numbers contrast sharply with 2009, when the Sun was blank 71% of the time, or 260 out of 365 days.

It is very clear that the solar minimum is now over, and that the Sun ramping up to its next maximum. Blank days should soon cease (today might very well be the last for years), and the number of sunspots should continue to increase through approximately 2013, when astronomers now expect the maximum to peak.

It will be a weak maximum, however, likely accompanied with cold weather. At least, this has been the pattern for the last ten centuries, based on the best data that scientists have. When the Sun produces sunspots, the Sun gets hotter, and though that increase in radiation appears slight, it seems enough to warm the Earth’s climate. This is what appears to have happened around the year 1000, during what climate scientists call the Medieval Warm Period.

And when the Sun goes blank, or produces fewer sunspots, the Sun dims, and the Earth’s climate cools. This is what happened in the 1600s and 1700s, when the Little Ice Age gripped much of the Earth. It also happened in the first two decades of the 1800s, the last time the Sun produced as few sunspots as it is now, and when at least one year was called “the year without a summer”. Interestingly, that cold period at the beginning of the 1800s was also a period of intense volcanic activity, which threw a lot of dust and material into the atmosphere and thus helped contribute to the cooling of the Earth.

The last half of the 20th century, however, has not seen that much volcanic activity, which has made the atmosphere today clearer than any time in the past five decades. It has also been a time of increased solar activity, with most of the solar maximums peaking at generally higher numbers. No wonder scientists have detected evidence of a slight warming in the climate.

However, that warming appears to be ending, and it is doing so at the same time the Sun is going spotless. Though we don’t yet fully understand the mechanics of how these two events are linked, it behooves us to pay close attention. No climate prediction or computer model will mean anything if it does not.

Meanwhile, solar scientists remain unclear about the causes behind the solar cycle’s ebbs and flows. They have a reasonable idea that the cycle is caused by the Sun’s magnetic dynamo as it flips from one polarity to another. But why this happens is still subject to debate.

More importantly, it remains a complete unknown how long the next sunspot minimum will be. The Sun could spring back to life, as it did in the 1850s, producing lots of sunspots. Or sunspots might fade out for a few additional decades, as they did in the 1600s.

Sadly, based on the state of our science today, this is a question that probably no one will be able to answer — until we actually see it happen.

The November sunspot graph – still low and below expectations

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center today published its monthly update of the Sun’s developing sunspot cycle (see below). The graph shows the slow rise in sunspots (blue/black lines) in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009 (red line).

Novembe sunspot graph

As I noted last month, the rise in sunspots as we ramp up to the next solar maximum has definitely slowed, which indicates clearly that we are heading towards the weakest solar maximum in more than two centuries. And as I have noted repeatedly on this website as well as on the John Batchelor Show, that means very cold weather!

The updated monthly sunspot graph, as of November 2, 2010

NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center today published its monthly update of the Sun’s developing sunspot cycle, showing the slow rise in sunspots in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009.

November 2, 2010 sunspot graph

Unlike October graph, which showed a clear jump in sunspot activity, this November update shows that the rise in sunspot numbers has once again slowed down. As I’ve noted repeatedly, these numbers suggest that we are heading for the weakest solar maximum in two hundred years, far below predictions. And when that last happened, around 1810, it was called the Dalton minimum and the Earth experienced one of its coldest periods in many many decades.

The October 2010 sunspot graph

Yesterday NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center published its October monthly graph, showing the sun’s developing sunspot cycle in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009.

October Sunspot graph

Sunspot activity in September clearly jumped, though it still remains far below predictions. Prepare for the weakest solar maximum since the 1810s!

Note also that today the Sun is blank, with no sunspots, the first time this has happened since August. At that time I speculated that this might “be the last time the Sun will be blank for years as it continues to ramp up to its next solar maximum.” Obviously not. The question now is whether today will be the finale in blankness for this minimum.

The state of the Sun, September 30, 2010

Time to update the state of the Sun, as seen by satellite data (the last update was in July). The graph below, posted today by Physikalisch- Meteorologisches Observatorium Davos (PMOD), shows the variation in the Sun’s Total Solar Irradiance since 1978. I have added a blue horizontal line to show that even now, two years after the Sun reached the lowest point in its most recent solar minimum, it has still not brightened enough to equal the lowest point in the two previous minimums. (Note that if we included the minimum from 1976, the Sun would still be below that as well.)

solar cycle as of Sept 30, 2010

Once again, the evidence is building that the Sun might be heading towards the weakest maximum seen to two centuries. And when that happened, things got very cold on Earth.

the sunspot cycle

The September monthly sunspot graph

The Sun continues to show a reluctance to come out of its solar minimum. Today NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center published its monthly graph, showing the sun’s developing sunspot cycle in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009. As you can see below, actual sunspot activity remains far below what was predicted by the red line.

September 7, 2010 Solar Cycle progression

As I noted when I posted the July and August graphs, the Sun’s ramp up to solar maximum continues to be far slower and weaker than predicted. After two hundred years of watching a vibrant and strong solar cycle, it appears increasingly likely that we are heading towards some quiet time on the Sun.

More evidence that the solar cycle is changing

A preprint paper published today on the Los Alamos astro-ph website shows further evidence of the decline in the strength of the Sun’s magnetic field over the past ten years. Extrapolated into the future, this data also suggests that the next solar maximum will be the weakest in 200 years, and that the solar maximum after that will have no sunspots at all. You can download the paper here [pdf].

The influence of the Sun’s solar cycle on the atmosphere

Scientists have confirmed that the just ending low solar minimum had considerable influence in shrinking the Earth’s outer atmosphere. Key quote:

[The scientist] says the research indicates that the Sun could be going through a period of relatively low activity, similar to periods in the early 19th and 20th centuries. This could mean that solar output may remain at a low level for the near future. “If it is indeed similar to certain patterns in the past, then we expect to have low solar cycles for the next 10 to 30 years.”

Sloppy journalism from the BBC

Though solar scientists have discovered that certain recent solar behavior might help explain the long and deep solar minimum that just ended, this BBC article immediately tries to give that result credit for explaining everything. To quote:

Solar physicists may have discovered why the Sun recently experienced a prolonged period of weak activity.

NOT! The result only observed a change in solar behavior beneath the surface, whereby the meridional flow slowed down as well as lengthened significantly into the high latitudes, and that this change occurred at the same time as the weak solar minimum. The paper made no attempt to explain why this happened, nor did it provide a theoretical explanation for how these changes resulted in a weak solar minimum.

Finally, and far more important, scientists still have no good theory for explaining the solar cycle in the first place. “We think it’s the solar dynamo [that causes the solar cycle],” noted Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center when I interviewed him for my Sky & Telescope article, What’s Wrong with Our Sun? (August 2009). “But we don’t undertand how the dynamo works, as yet.”

The BBC should be more careful in how it reports a story like this.

A possible cause of extended solar minimum proposed

Scientists think they have discovered at least one cause of the recent long and deep solar minimum: a change in how plasma near the surface of the Sun flows from the equator to the pole, sinks, and then flows back to the equator. In the last minimum, this meridional current flowed much slower, while also flowing much closer to the pole before finally sinking.

The August monthly sunspot graph

Waking up is hard to do. Today NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center once again published its monthly graph, showing the progress of the sun’s sunspot cycle in comparison with the consensis prediction made by the solar science community in May 2009.

August 3, 2010 Solar Cycle progression

As I noted when I posted the July graph, the data continues to show that the Sun’s ramp up to solar maximum is far slower and weaker than predicted, despite the stories this week about how Sunday’s coronal mass ejection demonstrates that the sun is “waking up.”