It is the beginning of the month, and NOAA has once again published its update of its monthly graph that tracks the number of sunspots on the Sun’s Earth-facing hemisphere. Below is the newest graph, adding November’s numbers to the timeline and annotated by me with some additional details added to provide context.
Sunspot activity dropped in November, though still remained significantly higher than the prediction, a sunspot number of 77.6 compared to the predicted number of 57.4. At 77.6, the Sun continues the pause that began in June in the ramp up to solar maximum. For the past half year the Sun’s sunspot output has essentially stalled at approximately the same level.
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.
This pause is somewhat unprecedented. Though random fluctuations in the ramp up toward maximum are not unusual, that ramp up has almost always been steep, fast, and more or less continuous. The last time there was any long pause to maximum was during the ramp up to the 1916 solar maximum.
Nonetheless, November once again saw no blank days, continuing the pattern for all of 2022, which has so far seen only one day where the visible hemisphere of the Sun has been blank. While the increase in sunspots has stalled, it has done so at a high enough rate so that we always see sunspots.
Does this pause mean the maximum will end up closer to the predicted weak maximum, as indicated by the red curve? No. What the pause indicates is that the Sun is simply acting in its typically unpredictable manner. It is continuing to have a solar cycle (as predicted) but the details of that cycle remain capricious, and little understood. As I said in last month’s update:
For the actual sunspot count to come into alignment with the prediction we would either need to see a sudden drastic drop in sunspots (unlikely), or the pause would have to continue for the rest of this year and all of ’23.
…Such a pause would be entirely unprecedented.
Of course, the Sun could do this, considering how little we understand the fundamental processes that produce this sunspot cycle. Or it could sudden generate a lot more sunspots, resuming that fast ramp up that suggested this upcoming maximum would be very strong. Or it could suddenly weaken, with sunspot numbers dropping, and thus prove the prediction of NOAA’s panel right.
We simply do not know, cannot predict with any certainty, and can only wait and gather data.
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