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It is that time of the month again. Today NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center today released its monthly update of the ongoing solar cycle sunspot activity, covering January 2012. I have posted the graph below the fold.
For the second month in a row the Sun’s sunspot activity plunged. The drop in activity has been so steep that it has cancelled out almost two thirds of the activity rise that occurred during the last half of 2010. In fact, the drop brings the Sun’s sunspot count back to numbers comparable with March of last year, hardly a sign of a fast ramp up to solar maximum, which is what solar scientists have come to expect the Sun to do. Instead, the Sun’s activity during this ramp up has fluctuated wildly, going up strongly for several months and then dropping precipitously for another few months. These wild swings have now repeated themselves four times since the fall of 2010.
What will happen next is anybody’s guess. What does seem apparent now is that the next solar maximum is going to be weak. Whether it will match the predictions of the solar scientists at the Marshall Space Flight Center, who now think the maximum will be the weakest in 80 years, or will be weaker than that, only time will tell. The wild fluctuations do suggest that the Sun is struggling to produce sunspots during this climb to solar maximum, and is often failing.
Update: I did some checking and found that the Marshall prediction for the next maximum has changed in the last month. Though the scientists there still call for an average sunspot number of 96 at maximum, they have now pushed back that maximum from February 2013 to late in 2013.