In doing these sunspot updates every month since I started Behind the Black thirteen years ago, one of the repeated common themes has been noting how little we really know about the basic fundamental processes within the Sun. We know the process involves nuclear fusion combined with fission, and that process also creates a powerful magnetic field that every eleven years flips in its polarity. We also know that this eleven year cycle corresponds to an eleven year cycle of rising and then falling sunspot activity.
The devil however is in the details, and we know very little about those details. How those larger processes link to the specific changing features on the Sun remains little understood, if at all. The sudden and entirely unexpected steep drop in sunspot activity in August, as noted in the release yesterday of NOAA’s monthly update of its graph that tracks the number of sunspots on the Sun’s Earth-facing hemisphere, demonstrates this level of ignorance quite starkly.
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007 for the previous maximum, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The blue curve is their revised May 2009 prediction. The red curve is the new prediction, first posted by NOAA in April 2020.
Last month I noted how the Sun’s sunspot activity in July had maintained the high levels since the start of the ramp up to solar maximum, expected in 2025. Noting how the activity in June and July was the most we had seen since 2014, I speculated as follows:
How much higher can solar activity go? Quite a lot, based on the long term solar cycle graph at the bottom of the first graph above. The 1958 solar maximum produced about twice as many sunspots as we have saw in the weak maximum in 2014. The high activity right now is only a little higher than the highest numbers from that 2014 maximum, so history says the sunspot count certainly go up quite a bit before this next maximum is reached.
It could even go up so high that NOAA (and I) will have to increase the Y-axis of the graph, increasing its top number to as much as 300.
So much for that speculation. The steep drop in activity in August instead suggests that we might possibly have reached solar maximum, and will now see several years of up and down fluctuations (as happened during the past maximum), but no great increase matching the past high maximums from the 20th century.
Or maybe not. We really have no idea what the Sun intends to do in the coming years. Sunspot activity could still rise to past highs, or it might have decided to stabilize roughly where it is now. Your guess is as good as mine, and, to be blunt, it is only slightly less worthwhile than the guesses of the scientists in the solar science community.
So what have we actually learned? I can say unequivocally that the drop in activity in August provides very little information for solving the fundamental problems I described earlier. All we know is that sunspot activity dropped, but why remains unknown.
What we have once again learned however is that science is uncertain, that skepticism is the only certain thing, and that anyone who says they have the answer should be looked at with great askance. They might be right, but doubt is the watchword, because until you have done endless research over many decades, the truth might still remain hidden from you.
Or to put it more elegantly, I think it worthwhile to remind all of the words of Francis Bacon, whose writings in the 1600s, in parallel with Newton, helped usher in the Age of Enlightenment.
Truth is to be sought for, not in the felicity of any age which is an unstable thing, but in the light of nature and experience, which is eternal. . . . Let every student of nature take this as a rule — that whatever his mind seizes and dwells upon with peculiar satisfaction is be held in suspicion. [Novum Organum, sections 56 and 58]
We must remind ourselves repeatedly, we might be wrong, we might be wrong, we might be wrong. Under that mantra, we might also create the possibility of learning what is right.
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