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Sunspot update: The flatline resumes

NOAA this week released its February update of its monthly graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. Below is my monthly version, annotated as I have done every month since 2011.

After a tiny uptick in sunspot activity in January, the Sun resumed the unprecedented flatlining of sunspot activity that began last June. Since then, the Sun has produced practically no sunspots, a drought that as far as I can tell has never happened since the 11-year sunspot cycle resumed in the 1700s (after the grand minimum in the 1600s) and astronomers began counting sunspots.

February 2020 sunspot activity
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, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

February saw only one sunspot, and it belonged to the old solar cycle. It also occurred at the beginning of the month, and was followed by 33-day streak of blankness, into the middle of March, when a sunspot from the new cycle appeared and quickly faded.

The continuing overall lack of sunspots, from either the old or new cycle, does not mean that we are entering a new grand minimum, with no sunspots for decades (though some scientists believe we are). It does suggest however that the next solar maximum will be weak, and very likely weaker than the very weak maximum that just ended.

Why the Sun does this remains a mystery. Scientists really have no fundamental understanding of the magnetic processes that produce the Sun’s sunspot cycles. And since that cycle appears to have some effect on the Earth’s climate, it also means scientists do not yet have a fundamental understanding of the climate either.

Not that this lack of knowledge matters anymore. We are in an age of panic and certainty, based on emotion and feelings. All that matters is that many people feel they understand the climate and how the Sun works, just as everyone is sure that COVID-19 will destroy the world if we don’t shut down all human activity.

They are certain, and any additional data that illustrates that certainty is unwarranted is irrelevant and must be ignored.

Certainty however is a very dangerous thing. The universe is always more complicated than we know, and to assume we now understand all without doubt leaves us very vulnerable to some bad surprises, as well as the chance we will take actions that are foolish, inappropriate, and even downright evil.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

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He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

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14 comments

  • Phill O

    I have been waiting with baited breath for your update and analysis.

    “Certainty however is a very dangerous thing. The universe is always more complicated than we know, and to assume we now understand all without doubt leaves us very vulnerable to some bad surprises, as well as the chance we will take actions that are foolish, inappropriate, and even downright evil.”

    No truer words have been written. The March spots were so weak, I have my doubts they would have been seen during the Maunder minimum, so we are in “possibly” a similar situation.

    “It does suggest however that the next solar maximum will be weak, and very likely weaker than the very weak maximum that just ended.” If we are going into a grande minimum, we would expect the next cycle to be very week indeed.

    The only way to know for certain, is to go into a grande minimum. This will take decades to “know”.

  • Lee S

    Hi Bob, one of the few things we agree upon is the terrible meddling with scientific data to prove a point… It undermines the very tenet of the scientific method. But I have a question for you…. Do you have any opinion on the relationship with solar activity and our climate? You have been studying the data for many years… I know about the Maunder minimum, and while I understand correlation is not causation, it gives pause for thought in a variety of ways.
    My lad is doing the sun in science class right now, and I’ve told him the verdict is still out on this matter. Any thoughts you might throw out way are appreciated. ( I have shared this post with him, and he has followed the links given.. all appreciated!)

  • Lee S: Have your son (and yourself) do a search on BtB for “sunspots”. You will get a lot of past posts.

    In sum, however, my answer to your question (“Do you have any opinion on the relationship with solar activity and our climate? “) was stated in this update. We don’t know. I have written this endlessly and repeatedly, so often that I worry I am boring my readers.

    While I suspect that the Sun has influence, good science requires me to dismiss that opinion until the data shows it.

    Your son should definitely read these two BtB essays however:

    Al Gore and the silencing of debate
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/essays-and-commentaries/al-gore-and-the-silencing-of-debate/

    The Fantasy of Extreme Weather
    https://behindtheblack.com/behind-the-black/essays-and-commentaries/the-fantasy-of-extreme-weather/

    While somewhat early essays on this website, they remain accurate and pertinent today.

  • Lee S

    Cheers Bob… The links and your concidered opinion are appreciated…. If/when the boy starts participating here, I hope he names himself Luka S….. He’s intelligent, and a match for me on many subjects… (And 14… they live in such a different world than we grew up in…. ) And I could use some backup here sometimes!! ;-)
    But seriously, thank you! You are the “go to” man for sunspot related matters….

  • Lee S

    Although!!!…. (Sorry!!) The essay on extreme weather events was written 7 years ago… I would be interested to see updated statistics, I know the UK has experienced more flooding this year than any in living memory…. They also build on flood plains… I don’t live there any more… And you can’t fix stupid… But we have had the warmest winter on record here in Sweden, Australia was literally on fire… As were big chunks of the US … of course my son’s class wants to instill him with the man made climate change mantrin… But I remain sceptical… I have the feeling that any little burp from our star would have massively more impact than anything we can do to the earth…. Anyway, just curious if your opinion has changed any in the last 7 years…

  • Lee S: In case you haven’t noticed, I follow this science. I gave you that essay because nothing has changed since then. We still have zero evidence of an any increase of extreme weather events, other that which resides in the imagination of leftist politicians.

  • MDN

    Bob:

    I disagree with the assertion that “Why the Sun does this remains a mystery.”

    IMHO it is obviously a matter of harmonics. The sun is a giant ball of plasma with a nuclear furnace at its core, so mostly a non-solid body that we know for certain has stratified into many layers that rotate somewhat or more independently due to the laws of physics. This is similar to the atmosphere of Jupiter, just hot. So, while we don’t understand the precise structure and workings of this system, it is little different from other multi-resonant systems we observe every day (said Jovian atmosphere, our own atmosphere (ENSO, the Pacific decadal oscillation, etc.), aircraft and automobile structures (which is why our dashboards buzz on occasion, but only at certain speeds), tall buildings and bridge behavior in the wind, the horns and strings of musical instruments, etc., etc., etc.).

    All of these involve interacting harmonics and it is not at all surprising that the Sun exhibits cyclic behavior on a variety of time scales as one or more of these converge and diverge. The most basic is the reasonably consistent 11 year cycle we are reasonably familiar with. What we’re now learning is how another one or more layers of this onion that rotate on different time scales affect the system. We have some limited expectations about this from the Maunder minimum, but the observational data set on that is pretty sparse at best. And, I suspect it is not at all surprising if the entry into a true Grand Minimum actually involves a series of 11 year cycles, not just one, that gradually become weaker before flatlining for an extended period.

    That may be what we are seeing now, and then again maybe not. As you say the one certainty in science is the uncertainty of science. So we need to just sit back, observe and collect the data, and then use that to figure out as best we can what is really happening. But almost certainly the Sun’s cycles are driven by a multi-harmonic system of reasonably high complexity, but it is going to take a fair amount of time and theoretical tinkering to really work out the details (the how vs. why).

    Lee S:

    Not to lead you away from BTB (which is the BEST for general space and astronomy type news and excellent Evening Pauses imho), but another site you may find useful and interesting on the topic of climate is Wattsupwiththat.com published somewhat humorously by Anthony Watts. They cover all things climate related including the potential implications of solar cycles on climate. Just enter “Sunspot” into their search box and you’ll find lots of essays to peruse. The comments appended to their essays are a great source of interesting, mostly scientific, commentary and observations as well in my experience. Much is above my head, but usually there is enough presented in lay terms that you can make a reasonable assessment of the arguments. And, like Bob, they adhere to strict behavioral standards where vigorous discussion is encouraged, but personal diatribes are not tolerated. Higher recommended.

  • MDN: Your opinion about the cause of these solar cycles is reasoned. It is still just an opinion, and such things come cheap.

  • Lee S

    @NDN, thanks for the link…. And your theory is interesting, and as far as I understand, scientifically sound…. Is there any research out there that has examined this?
    @Bob, it’s true opinions are cheap…. Very true, but this theory has legs in my opinion…. I would like to hear more…

  • Raymond A Brooks

    Wise words from Bob for sure. When the climate starts following the models….oooops, silly me..uh, when the models starting following reality…..
    I have done a lot of thermodynamic computer modeling over 70 years. I never placed stock in any of my models until/unless they were spot on. I was always the biggest critic of my models. That is the only way to improve and understand reality. And sometimes a model never gets perfect. One thing is for sure, if you pound your chest yelling, “I am right, I am right! and you doubters are merely “deniers” then you are likely wrong and also diffident.

  • A. Nonymous

    John Ringo Novel Status:
    [ ]Living in one
    [ ]Not living in one

  • KariGo8

    I also read WattsupwithThat and look in on Space Weather occasionally. My worry is that if we are experiencing warmer weather during a solar minimum what will happen during a solar maximum?
    .

  • Edward

    KariGo8,
    You have confused a solar cycle with a more secular trend, to use a financial term in a scientific context. The hypothesis of the Maunder Minimum causing the Little Ice Age is based upon the climate not changing as rapidly as as the 11-year cycles. The Little Ice Age developed over a couple of centuries, or so, and the recovery from it is still under way, more than two centuries later.

    According to the hypothesis, we may not be able to confirm that the correlation is cause-and-effect unless the secular minimum lasts until 2050 or later.

  • Phill O

    KariGo8

    The climate is not warming! Data has been fudged. The skies are getting cloudy. Astronomy in Alberta has gone to crap over the last ten years, and in SW NM it has deteriorated over the last five years.

    As an aside, Bob is in the position to evaluate finds from both camps: AGW and natural causes. The rest on this site tend to be in that camp with Bob; clean unadulterated skepticism. That is a good thing.

    On the other hand, science progresses when researchers logically follow through on one theory and put brain power into all attempts at proving the theory. Hopefully, the theory is based on fact. The AGW camp has, IMHO, corrupted the scientific method and has been caught fudging data to support their theory.

    I tend to be of the camp that thinks solar cycles may be the major factor in climate change, based on historical evidence of warm and cold environments. Also, we know that the Maunder minimum correlated with the mini-ice-age. Why? We really do not have a grasp on that.

    Are we going into another grand minimum? Only time will tell. However, if we are, my prediction is that the upcoming cycle maximum will be lower than cycle 24, if we are. I do not expect it to be absent because of the nature of cycles; they do not abruptly change.

    The year to date has seen sun spots which (IMHO) would have been missed during the Maunder minimum due to equipment and manpower of the time.

    Therefore, at this point in time, we can start to believe that we are going into a grand minimum. Anyone, who says they know for sure, is to be mistrusted.

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