Sunspot animation of Sunspot 1019.  Credit: Spaceweather.com
Sunspot animation of Sunspot 1019. Credit: Spaceweather.com

Solar Astronomy

Newsflash: Sunspot Appears!

1 Jun , 2009 by

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OK, I admit – the headline is a little over the top. But the sun has been so quiet of late, that even a small sunspot can be exciting. There’s been some debate whether this period of extreme solar calm is truly unusual, or just part of the natural cycle. But solar cycle models never predicted this low amount of activity. “It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” admitted Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, a member of an international panel of experts that are now trying to predict what the next solar cycle will hold. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

The panel is predicting that the next cycle, Solar Cycle 24 will have a peak sunspot number of 90, the lowest of any cycle since 1928 when Solar Cycle 16 peaked at 78.
Sunspot cycles

Right now, the solar cycle is in a valley–the deepest of the past century. In 2008 and 2009, the sun set Space Age records for low sunspot counts, weak solar wind, and low solar irradiance. The sun has gone more than two years without a significant solar flare.

“In our professional careers, we’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says Pesnell. “Solar minimum has lasted far beyond the date we predicted in 2007.”

For 2009, the number of “spotless” days are 123, as of May 31, which is 82%.

There’s a little sign of action on the sun, though. In recent months small sunspots and “proto-sunspots” are popping up with increasing frequency. Enormous currents of plasma on the sun’s surface (“zonal flows”) are gaining strength and slowly drifting toward the sun’s equator. Radio astronomers have detected a tiny but significant uptick in solar radio emissions. All these things are precursors of an awakening Solar Cycle 24 and form the basis for the panel’s new, almost unanimous forecast.

According to the forecast, the sun should remain generally calm for at least another year. This calm has a greater affect on Earth’s atmosphere than you might imagine. With low solar activity, the Earth’s atmosphere can cool and contract. Space junk accumulates in Earth orbit because there is less aerodynamic drag; hence the increase in the number of collision event “alarms” for the ISS and shuttles. The calm solar wind whips up fewer magnetic storms around Earth’s poles. Cosmic rays that are normally pushed back by solar wind instead intrude on the near-Earth environment. There are other side-effects, too, that can be studied only so long as the sun remains quiet.

But the sun is a very chaotic place, and even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather from solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CME) said Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. So we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security.

Sources: Science@NASA, SpaceWeather.com

By  -        
Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.


32 Responses

  1. Anaconda says:

    “It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,” admitted Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center, a member of an international panel of experts that are now trying to predict what the next solar cycle will hold. “The sun is behaving in an unexpected and very interesting way.”

    Could this be because Science doesn’t understand the Sun’s mechanics and phenomenon as well it claims to?

    And if such is the case, as the above statements by Dean Pesnell indicate, does that open up the possibility that alternative hypothesis need to be considered?

    Such would seem to be the case.

  2. IVAN3MAN says:

    I was expecting Anaconda to show up…
    Anaconda:

    Could this be because Science doesn’t understand the Sun’s mechanics and phenomenon as well it claims to?

    You mean like you don’t understand what electromagnetism is? 😉

    And if such is the case, as the above statements by Dean Pesnell indicate, does that open up the possibility that alternative hypothesis need to be considered?

    Like what? That the Sun is a huge burning ball of coal, drawn on a cart pulled by some bloody celestial horse? 😛

  3. IVAN3MAN says:

    NUTS! I forgot to close the bold tag after the word “you”.

  4. Nereid says:

    I am unfamiliar with Ms (Mr?) Science; would you be so kind as to provide more info on this person, Anaconda?

    Could this be because Science doesn’t understand the Sun’s mechanics and phenomenon as well it claims to?

    Specifically, in which papers, published in relevant peer-reviewed journals, may an interested reader find the details of such claims?

  5. Astrofiend says:

    “It turns out that none of our models were totally correct,”

    That’s why they’re called models, after all…

    “Could this be because Science doesn’t understand the Sun’s mechanics and phenomenon as well it claims to?”

    I don’t think ‘science’ would claim to understand the Sun to a greater extent than the evidence warrants. More than likely, there are quite a few facets of it’s behaviour that aren’t understood at all. Far more likely in this case however would be the fact that Solar Dynamics is fundamentally chaotic – the solar cycle is a semi-stable ‘attractor’ in a way, but not some sort of permanent fixture. And even if we did understand it all perfectly, this does not necessarily mean that even short term accurate predictions are possible – that is the fundamental property of deterministically chaotic system.

  6. Anaconda says:

    The post is straightforward and self-explanatory (paraphrase): “We don’t know why all this is happening the way it is.”

    Ivan3Man states: “You mean like you don’t understand what electromagnetism is? ”

    You mean like “modern” astronomy won’t acknowledge it takes electric current to generate magnetic fields?

    (And, yes, electron spin, or ‘ordered movement’ within a bar magnet is directly related to electrons and their “movements”.)

    But we aren’t talking “bar magnets” in deep space, are we?

    We’re talking large magnetic fields, and therefore, large movements of electrons (hint, electric currents).

    Or do you mean like “modern” astronomy’s faulty ideas about “magnetic reconnection”? :-)

    Nereid, your comment isn’t probative. The post quoted Pesnell, since these events are “unexpected” and “none of our models were totally correct,” it is simply a logical construction that “Science” doesn’t understand the mechanics as well as the scientific consensus claims to.

    “In our professional careers, we’ve never seen anything quite like it,” says Pesnell.

    Nereid, your passive-aggressive comment suggests your ideas of logical construction are faulty.

    This diminishes your credibility.

    Nereid, to help you out here is a model comment:

    “Anaconda, you are right that Science doesn’t understand the Sun’s mechanics in total, but the Sun’s current behavior does’t invalidate the basic components of the standard model. Science is always trying to achieve a better understanding of the processes involved.”

    But Nereid couldn’t admit that in anyway Anaconda was “right”, so therefore, a meaningless comment was in order.

    Isn’t that the definition of a crank?

  7. IVAN3MAN says:

    Anaconda:

    You mean like “modern” astronomy won’t acknowledge it takes electric current to generate magnetic fields?

    You mean like EU/PC proponents won’t acknowledge that it takes energy to generate an electric current? What is the source of that energy, Anaconda?

  8. Nereid says:

    What “faulty ideas” are you referring to here, Anaconda?

    Specifics please, backed up by references to primary materials.

    Or do you mean like “modern” astronomy’s faulty ideas about “magnetic reconnection”?

    Oh, and what is your source for this absurd assertion?

    You mean like “modern” astronomy won’t acknowledge it takes electric current to generate magnetic fields?

  9. ND says:

    Anaconda: “And if such is the case, as the above statements by Dean Pesnell indicate, does that open up the possibility that alternative hypothesis need to be considered?

    Such would seem to be the case.”

    Such as?

    Is there any model that from the EU or PC that you know of that explains all the observations we have so far of our sun better? There is a good amount of historical observation to work with. The current model predictions are being compared with ongoing observations. Are there sunspot predictions made by EU or PC models that we can be compared with observations and thus tested?

  10. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Far more likely in this case however would be the fact that Solar Dynamics is fundamentally chaotic

    Chaotic behaviour of solar radio flux:

    Abstract The presence of a chaotic attractor is investigated in time series of 10.7 cm solar flux. The correlation dimension and the Kolomogorov entropy have been calculated for the time period 1964–1984. The values found for the Kolmogorov entropy show that chaos is indeed present. The correlation dimension found for high solar activity is 3.3 and for low solar activity is 4.5, indicating that a low-dimensionsion chaotic attractor is present in the time series analysed.

    So solar flux is indeed a chaotic system among the (I believe) majority of possible dynamic systems, with an attractor giving semi-periodic behavior. Then we do “know why all this is happening the way it is”.

    And this is important, because the lowered irradiation forcing which isn’t covered in longtime climate models have given AGW denialists ammunition, as will the now predicted low next peak. The EU nutters aren’t the only anti-scientists out there, nor are they the most dangerous. (

    [Except for everyones else’s mental health. It is good to review basics of science of course. However, nutters makes the most unhealthy arguments to follow: “Green is red”, “warming is cooling”, “gravitation is electrics”, …]

  11. Torbjorn Larsson OM says:

    Eh? A ( is on the loose.

    That can’t be good because (what will happen if the open clauses are closed (which reminds me of a really funny scifi short novel (in which subplots opened up (all the time (until))))))) they all must come to a closure.

  12. Nereid says:

    Yes, Anaconda, my comment about Ms Science was intended to be humorous.

    But underlying it is a very serious point.

    And that is that what you wrote reflects a view of science that seems radically different from my own (and, very likely, most other people’s).

    And as I have said, many times, unless and until we can find a way to have a discussion that at least acknowledges these deep differences, we will continue talking past each other.

    Now wrt the specifics: “the possibility that alternative hypothesis need to be considered” is what happens all the time in science, it is its modus operandi!

    Perhaps you did not know that before? If so, now you do.

    Perhaps you do not understand what this means? If so, please say so and I (and others) would be only too pleased to explain it to you, in as much detail as you’d like.

    But the record of your comments on UT stories is there for all to read Anaconda, and you must admit that your first comment on this UT story looks like so many others (namely, part of a marketing campaign, to promote “EU/PU/PC” pseudo-science).

  13. damian says:

    Sol; It is beautiful without freckles.

    I do find it humorous that we worry when it spews plasma at us and then we fidget like expectant children when it’s quiet and sedate.

    The last time I saw a good Aurora Australis was in the mid 80’s. What a sight. Hoping Sol will put on another show soon.

    Damian K

  14. DrFlimmer says:

    @ damian

    You should ask a few Canadians what they think about “beatiful Auroras in the 80’ies” (yes, they are in the northern hemisphere, but what the heck 😉 ). The auroras were so beautiful that they forced parts of Canada to be without electrical power for some days.
    And calmness is not always a good sign – could be “the calmness before the storm”. Much like in 2003 (was it autumn 2003?) when in a period of relative silence suddenly two major storms hit us in a week. One day the sun was as calm as usual and the other day all hell broke loose.
    So, take care with the sun 😉

    @ Anaconda:

    Sorry for correcting you, but:

    (And, yes, electron spin, or ‘ordered movement’ within a bar magnet is directly related to electrons and their “movements”.)

    NO! This is fundamentally wrong! Just read an undergraduate textbook about quantum mechanics (now need for QED) and you will find out why…

    But I second some comments above: What does EU tell us about the current lack of sunspots? Is there any prediction (that goes beyond meaningless words) concerning the silence?

    If you come here to promote your stuff, you shouldn’t just say: “You are wrong!” – you MUST say why yours is better! Otherwise it is possible that you are not taken seriously….

  15. ND says:

    DrFlimmer,

    thaks for throwing “that goes beyond meaningless words”. That’s what I was going for. There is active science going on regarding predicting sunspots. Models are being compared against observations and models are being refined. Something that Anaconda keeps complaining should be happening. Well, Anaconda, are there any sunspot predictions from any EU/PC models? Do they fit observations better than models talked about in the article?

  16. DrFlimmer says:

    Correction:

    NO! This is fundamentally wrong! Just read an undergraduate textbook about quantum mechanics (now need for QED) and you will find out why…

    That should read “(NO need for QED)” 😉

  17. damian says:

    Hehe, Electrical Faults are a small price to pay for seeing an Aurora. The human experience of this phenomenon is also worthwhile.

    On average Lighting would cause more disruption worldwide then Auroras. I wonder if Lighting storms are also stronger during active solar periods however?

    Damian K

  18. TerraNova says:

    “May 29, 2009: An international panel of experts led by NOAA and sponsored by NASA has released a new prediction for the next solar cycle. Solar Cycle 24 will peak, they say, in May 2013 with a below-average number of sunspots.”

    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2009/29may_noaaprediction.htm

  19. ND says:

    Dem crickets sure are loud!

  20. Anaconda says:

    @ ND:

    Maybe, you missed it, but solrey has presented a detailed hypothesis that explains sunspots in prior posts.

    It’s called the ‘Electric Sun’ hypothesis.

    Sunspots are just one of many observed aspects of of the Sun that the Standard Model doesn’t explain.

    Here are some more:

    it is true that the ‘Electric Sun’ hypothesis is the most controversial aspect of Electric Universe theory.

    But there are 17 observations of the Sun that the standard model doesn’t well explain or explain at all:

    heavy elements
    solar spectrum
    neutrino deficiency
    neutrino varibability
    solar atmosphere
    differential rotation by latitude
    differential rotation by depth
    equatorial plasma torus
    the sunspots
    sunspot migration
    sunspot penumbra
    sunspot cycle itself
    magnetic field strength
    the even magnetic field
    helio seismology
    solar density
    changing size

    All of the above phenomena are not well explained by the standard model (internal nuclear furnace).

    Be sceptical, that’s okay. but also have an open-mind to the evidence as well.

    This Youtube video has been linked before on this website:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihVaL-FHUyk

    And, yes, there is a published peer reviewed paper that identifies an “electron drift” towards the Sun.

    Ask and ye shall receive.

  21. Nereid says:

    I’m asking, and looking forward to receiving

    And, yes, there is a published peer reviewed paper that identifies an “electron drift” towards the Sun.

    Ask and ye shall receive.

    For avoidance of doubt, are you claiming that this “‘Electric Sun’ hypothesis” DOES explain well all the 17 items on the list?

    If your answer is at least a qualified yes, may I ask what your criteria for determine ‘explain well’ are?

  22. Jon Hanford says:

    Where are the PU/PC/EU sunspot number predictions? Thank you in advance.

  23. ND says:

    Anaconda:

    I looked at the video just to be complete and it was just as I expected, a video brochure summarizing PC ideas. No predictions made.

    Look, there are astronomers who are developing models and predicting the sunspot cycle and testing them through observation. And this is happening in the open, in front of everyone to see if the predictions hold up or not. There is honest and open science here. Where is the EU/PC equivalent? Where are the sunspot predictions? This is an excellent opportunity to prove mainstream solar astronomy wrong. The solar observations are there to test against. And they don’t even have to make the observations. It’s being done for them.

    Also, see previous discussions on the neutrino defficiency. Particularly the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory results. This is a tired old line still being thrown aboot.

    In the video they talk about seeing into the sun via sunspots but they don’t mention how deep we’re seeing into the sun.

  24. Nereid says:

    @ND: that Youtube video is pure marketing spam, and the difference between Anaconda and a Snake Oil salesman is slim to none …

    … unless, of course, he comes through with his claim of “a published peer reviewed paper that identifies an “electron drift” towards the Sun“.

    No wait; “an “electron drift” towards the Sun” is not one of the 17 items, so unless said paper ALSO addresses, quantitatively, at least a decent subset of the 17 …

  25. ND says:

    solar spectrum?!?!

    How does the standard model run into trouble with the solar spectrum?

  26. ND says:

    I guess Anaconda and solrey don’t know of any sunspot predictions. Maybe there are no testable EU/PC sunspot predictions. This thread is now dead.

  27. Jon Hanford says:

    Maybe the solar spectrum doesn’t take into account electromagnetism :)

  28. DrFlimmer says:

    There have been remarks, but where is the paper?
    Too bad, Anaconda has lost it….

  29. Nereid says:

    It’s day three, and no sign of Anaconda’s promised paper, and some real science on the electric sun.

    The conclusion that his June 5th, 2009 at 12:16 pm comment was nothing more than advertising combined with promotion of personal, alternative physics theories seems ever more reasonable … and an explicit violation of the UT story comment rules.

  30. Nereid2 says:

    So where’s this paper you promised Anaconda?

    I see that you’re happy to promote a personal theory (‘Electric Sun’) in another UT story thread, but rather shy about showing anyone any details of what it is.

    Could it be, perhaps, because you’ve already floated it on the BA blog, and had the idea shredded?

  31. Nereid2 says:

    I’ve been doing some surfing, and came across Tom Bridgman’s “Dealing with Creationism in Astronomy” blog (here is a good place to start: http://dealingwithcreationisminastronomy.blogspot.com/2009_05_01_archive.html
    There are also some very good entries in March, April, and June 2009, along with links to a set of earlier blogs that systematically demolish Scott’s pseudoscientific nonsense).

    This is very pertinent to Anaconda’s comment:

    it is true that the ‘Electric Sun’ hypothesis is the most controversial aspect of Electric Universe theory.

    Why? Because someone called ‘Anaconda’ wrote several comments in response to Tom Bridgman’s demolition of Scott’s ideas!

    If this person is the same Anaconda, and if the same Electric Sun and Electric Universe, my conclusion is that we have prima facie evidence of Anaconda’s disingenuousness, as well as pretty good evidence that many of his comments on UT stories – at least in the last month or so – are marketing spam, and deliberate, cynical spam at that too.

  32. DrFlimmer says:

    Thanks for the link Nereid2 – I have to remember it when there is a discussion with those guys, again 😉

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