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Where are the Sunspots? Are we in for a Quiet Solar Cycle?

The Suns photosphere is looking particularly boring (NASA/SOHO)
So what’s up with our Sun? Is it going through a depression? It seems as if our closest star is experiencing a surprisingly uneventful couple of years. Solar minimum has supposedly passed and we should be seeing a lot more magnetic activity, and we certainly should be observing lots more sunspots. Space weather forecasts have been putting Solar Cycle 24 as a historically active cycle… but so far, nothing. So what’s the problem? Is it a ticking bomb, waiting to shock us with a huge jump in solar activity, flares and CMEs over a few months? Or could this lack of activity a prelude to a very boring few years, possibly leading the Earth toward another Ice Age?

It’s funny. Just as we begin to get worried that the next solar maximum is going to unleash all sorts of havoc on Earth (i.e. NASA’s 2006 solar storm warning), scientists begin to get concerned as to whether there is going to be a solar maximum at all. In a conference last week at Montana State University, solar physicists discussed the possibility that the Sun could be facing a long period of calm, leading to the concern that there could be another Maunder Minimum. The Maunder Minimum (named after the late 19th Century solar astronomer Edward W. Maunder, who discovered the phenomenon) was a 17th Century, 30-year period when very few sunspots were observed on the disk of the Sun. It is thought by many scientists that this period contributed to what became known as the “Little Ice Age” here on Earth. As the Sun provides Earth with all its energy, during extended periods when the solar output is lower than average, it seems possible a lack of sunspots on the Sun (i.e. low activity) may be linked with periods of cold down here.

It continues to be dead. That’s a small concern, a very small concern.” – Saku Tsuneta, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and program manager for the Hinode solar mission.

However, solar physicists are not too worried about this possibility, after all, it’s only been two years since solar minimum. Although activity has been low for the beginning of Cycle 24, sunspots have not been non-existent. In January of this year, a newborn spot was observed, as expected, in high latitude regions. More spots were seen in April. In March, sunspots from the previous solar cycle even made an appearance, putting on an unexpected show of flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs).

As pointed out by David Hathaway, a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, the fact that sunspots have already been observed in this new cycle means that it is highly unlikely we face anything as extreme as another Maunder Minimum. Hathaway says there is nothing unusual about having a relatively understated solar cycle after several particularly active cycles. Solar Cycle 23 was a very active period for the Sun with a greater than average number of sunspots observed on the solar surface.

It appears there are two different predictions for the activity level of the next solar cycle. On the one hand we have scientists that think this cycle might be below average, and on the other hand we have scientists who believe the next cycle will be the biggest yet. We certainly have a long way to go before we can begin making any accurate solar forecasts…

Source: Space.com

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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gary June 13, 2008, 8:41 PM

    Gotta to be a bad Hollywood screenplay in their somewhere. Maybe launching some nukes into the sun will solve the problem….

  • marcellus June 14, 2008, 4:32 AM

    I think this just proves that the Sun has more to do with the climate than ANY OTHER INFLUENCE on planet Earth.

  • Rusty June 14, 2008, 10:35 PM

    Will,

    EXACTLY! I FINALLY get on HF, and now they tell me that the next solar cycle might not be very good. Bummer. At least the satellites will be OK… :)

    73 de KC5QNK

  • JUAN June 15, 2008, 10:34 AM

    IT´S PLANET X!!!!!!!

  • RGR June 15, 2008, 10:52 AM

    As regards the comment by Chris Lintott,
    Please consider this document:
    Solar Cycle 24: Implications for the United States by David Archibald
    International Conference on Climate Change
    March, 2008
    David Archibald: david.archibald@westnet.com.au

  • alan June 16, 2008, 2:24 AM

    Oh no, I wonder if Al Gore will have to give back his peace prize money?
    I think we should all over react and make more CO2 to help warm the earth. I don’t want any snow in Florida!

  • Falkor June 16, 2008, 4:19 AM

    Global warming. Ice age. Ain’t that good!

  • Eric Near Buffalo June 17, 2008, 6:49 AM

    When do we get to the point when we realize that maybe there’s just nothing we can do and that all that has happened or will happen is just the course that nature is going to take?

    We are an oft’ egomaniacal species that assumes it will always be here and in some cases realizes its faults way too late, whether or not they are impacting ecosystems on a global scale. It’s a humbling thought for me to think that we could possibly just be along for the ride; that we really don’t control our fate.

    Life has existed here and been rendered extinct before us and will most likely do the same after us; for a limited time anyways as the Sun will probably bake this planet in a billion years or less as far as we can predict. All I can hope for is that we find a way to maybe lessen any impact we have and prolong our way of life here, at least for a little while.

  • Talendear June 18, 2008, 10:31 PM

    Chris Lintott said:
    “there is a lot of nonsense talked about the influence of the Sun on climate, including unfounded claims that it might be responsible for global warming, and that means that all of us have to be careful when jazzing up articles.”

    Question: What would the earth be like without the sun?
    Answer: A frozen ball.

    The sun certainly plays a part in climate, especially when one figures in the change in seasons due to the amount of sunlight hitting a particular region of the earth in a given season. Just as a matter of logic, the amount of energy given off by the sun at any given time would affect the climate on Earth to some extent and that’s where the concept of Maunder Minimum comes in. As for jazzing up articles, I don’t see what you are talking about. The article clearly states “However, solar physicists are not too worried about this possibility, after all, it’s only been two years since solar minimum.” That implication, to me at least, is that the question concerning the Maunder Minimum was already asked before the article was written.

  • Michael Gmirkin June 19, 2008, 1:01 PM

    Polzer Says: “Man must have somehow caused this, lol”

    Yes, we’ve now learned that man’s mastery of electrical forces has begun affecting the sun in a kind of a weird feedback loop. Anthropogenic Solar Suppression (figure out the acronym yourself) is the latest greatest ad hoc theory to explain the unexplainable… Apparently, as CMEs can affect man-made electrical systems on Earth, so too can Earth’s man-made electrical systems affect the electrical functions of the plasma at the sun. It seems we’ve managed to foul up the Sun’s circuits. We must now begin levying heavier taxes on electricity in order to get people to reduce their consumption. Industrialized nations must begin buying “electricity credits” from poorer nations who don’t produce or consume much electricity.

    And, ohh, I can’t go on it’s all just too damned ridiculous… ;o]

  • Michael Gmirkin June 19, 2008, 1:04 PM

    Seriously though, the apparent lack of predictive ability is worrisome… We don’t even know whether we’re going into a heavy-duty cycle or an utterly wimpy cycle. This can’t look good for all those PhD’s out there, eh?

    *wink*

  • Michael Gmirkin June 19, 2008, 1:07 PM

    By the by, how is it that the solar cycle is supposed to happen again, based on the internal fusion model of the sun? And why does it vary on ~11-year cycles?

    Does the internal fusion model predict some kind of 11-year periodicity for sun spots or for solar flares, CME’s, and other such energetic events? Or is the periodicity not something the model predicts, but simply has to “cope with” because it’s there (even if it’s not explicitly expected)?

  • Eric Near Buffalo June 20, 2008, 6:23 AM

    How did we determine that it was exactly 11 years? Can you really put something like a star an exact cycle? We can’t even predict what happens on our home planet. We thought it would be a horrible hurricane season last summer in the Atlantic and it was pretty boring on a meteorological scale. Let’s face it, we just don’t know for a fact what one cycle will be like and when these things will actually happen. It’s too hard to predict something like natural cycles and normal cycles because what is normal? We’ve only been able to observe things “accurately” for 100 years – maybe 120 years. How do we know that the 11 year cycles aren’t just stellar “farts” in a much larger cycle – aside from the sun’s immense life cycle itself? Don’t bore me with statistics because obviously they aren’t telling the complete truth.

  • TROY June 25, 2008, 10:03 AM

    a lot to learn about sun weather forcast?

    We can’t even forcast earth weather

  • Bill June 29, 2008, 5:45 AM

    Well, the arctic sea ice has returned. We shall see what this year brings. Being an ice fisherman and amateur meteorologist, I am selfish and welcome a good period of global cooling.

  • Tom Teague July 28, 2008, 8:37 AM

    With regard to Chris Lintott’s reference to “unfounded claims that it (the Sun) might be responsible for global warming”, a moment’s thought shows that the proposition that the Sun “might” be responsible, at least in part, for global warming is hardly an extreme or irrational claim or, indeed, one that has yet been categorically refuted. In any event, it will take more than mere bluster to refute it.

  • Peter August 3, 2008, 2:31 AM

    Our CO2 level has increased to around 380ppm yet the satellite data shows a slight decrease in global temperatures since 1998. On top of all this is the late start to SC24. If you plot out the sunspot activity back to 1750 it is obvious that there is also about 100 year cycle. The last three solar cycles have been big ones (175+) and from the plots my guess is if SC24 gets going at it will peak in around 2014 at about 75, Cycle SC25 will weaker peaking at around 50. The duration of SC23 is a definite concern to the Global Warming party.

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