Regular Solar Cycle Could Be Going on Hiatus

by Nancy Atkinson on June 14, 2011

Our Sun on June 6, 2011. Credit: Credit: Cesar Cantu from the Chilidog Observatory in Monterrey, Mexico.

Are we headed into the 21st century version of the Maunder Minimum? Three researchers studying three different aspects of the Sun have all come up with the same conclusion: the Sun’s regular solar cycles could be shutting down or going into hibernation. A major decrease in solar activity is predicted to occur for the next solar cycle (cycle #25), and our current solar cycle (#24) could be the last typical one. “Three very different types of observations all pointing in the same direction is very compelling,” said Dr. Frank Hill from the National Solar Observatory, speaking at a press briefing today. “Cycle 24 may be the last normal one, and 25 may not even happen.”


Even though the Sun has been active recently as it heads towards solar maximum in 2013, there are three lines of evidence pointing to a solar cycle that may be going on hiatus. They are: a missing jet stream, slower activity near the poles of the sun and a weakening magnetic field, meaning fading sunspots. Hill, along with Dr. Richard Altrock from the Air Force Research Laboratory and Dr. Matt Penn from the National Solar Observatory independently studied the different aspects of the solar interior, the visible surface, and the corona and all concur that cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.

Solar activity, including sunspot numbers, rises and falls on average about every 11 years – sometimes the cycles are as short as 9 years, other times it is as long as 13 years. The Sun’s magnetic poles reverse about every 22 years, so 11 years is half of that magnetic interval cycle.

"Butterfly diagram" shows the position of sunspots over 12 solar cycles. Sunspots emerge over a range of latitudes centered on migratory jet streams that follow a clear pattern, trending from higher latitudes to lower latitudes on the Sun. The active latitudes are associated with mobile zonal flows or "jet streams" that vary through the cycle. Credit: SWRI

The first line of evidence is a slowing of a plasma flow inside the Sun, an east/west flow of gases under the surface of the Sun detected via seismology with spacecraft like the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO)or SOHO and also with the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG) observing stations, a system that measures pulsations on the solar surface to understand the internal structure of the sun. The flow of plasma normally indicates the onset of sunspot formation for the next solar cycle. While this river ebbs and flows during the cycle, the “torsional oscillations,” — which starts at mid-latitudes and migrates towards the equator — and normally begins forming for the next solar cycle has not yet been detected.

Latitude-time plots of jet streams under the Sun's surface show the surprising shutdown of the solar cycle mechanism. New jet streams typically form at about 50 degrees latitude (as in 1999 on this plot) and are associated with the following solar cycle 11 years later. New jet streams associated with a future 2018-2020 solar maximum were expected to form by 2008 but are not present even now, indicating a delayed or missing Cycle 25. Credit: SWRI

Hill said the above graphic is key for understanding the issue. “The flow for Cycle 25 should have appeared in 2008 or 2009 but it has not and we see no sign of it,” he said. “This indicates that the start of Cycle 25 may be delayed to 2021 or 2022, with a minimum great that what we just experienced, or may not happen at all.”

Plots of coronal brightness against solar latitude show a "rush to the poles" that reflects the formation of subsurface shear in the solar polar regions. The current "rush to the poles" is delayed and weak, reflecting the lack of new shear under the photosphere. Note the graph depicts both north and south hemispheres overlaid into one map of solar magnetic activity, and that the patterns correspond with the butterfly diagram above. Credit: SWRI

The second line of evidence is slowing of the “rush to the poles,” the rapid poleward march of magnetic activity observed in the Sun’s faint corona. Altrock said the activity in the solar corona follows same oscillation pattern described by Hill, and that they have been observing the pattern for about 40 years. The researchers now see a very weak and slow pattern in this movement.

“A key thing to understand is that those wonderful, delicate coronal features are actually powerful, robust magnetic structures rooted in the interior of the Sun,” Altrock said. “Changes we see in the corona reflect changes deep inside the Sun.”

In a well-known pattern, new solar activity emerges first at about 70 degrees latitude at the start of a cycle, then towards the equator as the cycle ages. At the same time, the new magnetic fields push remnants of the older cycle as far as 85 degrees poleward. “In previous solar cycles, solar maximum occurred when the rush to the poles reached an average latitude of 76 degrees,” Altrock said. “Cycle 24 started out late and slow and may not be strong enough to create a rush to the poles, indicating we’ll see a very weak solar maximum in 2013, if at all. It is not clear whether solar max as we know it.”

Altrock added that if the “rush” doesn’t occur, no one knows what will happen in the future because no one has modeled what takes place without this rush to the poles.

Average magnetic field strength in sunspot umbras has been steadily declining for over a decade. The trend includes sunspots from Cycles 22, 23, and (the current cycle) 24. Credit: SWRI

The third line of evidence is a long-term weakening trend in the strength of sunspots. Penn, along with his colleague William Livingston predict that by Cycle 25, magnetic fields erupting on the Sun will be so weak that few if any sunspots will be formed.

Using more than 13 years of sunspot data collected at the McMath-Pierce Telescope at Kitt Peak in Arizona, Penn and Livingston observed that the average field strength declined about 50 gauss per year during Cycle 23 and now in Cycle 24. They also observed that spot temperatures have risen exactly as expected for such changes in the magnetic field. If the trend continues, the field strength will drop below the 1,500 gauss threshold and spots will largely disappear as the magnetic field is no longer strong enough to overcome convective forces on the solar surface.

“Things are erupting on the sun,” Penn said, “but they don’t have the energy to create sunspots.”
But back in 1645-1715 was the period known as the Maunder Minimum, a 70-year period with virtually no sunspots. The Maunder Minimum coincided with the middle – and coldest part – of the Little Ice Age, during which Europe and North America experienced bitterly cold winters. It has not been proven whether there is a causal connection between low sunspot activity and cold winters. However lower earth temperatures have been observed during low sunspot activity. If the researchers are correct in their predictions, will we experience a similar downturn in temperatures?

Hill said that some researchers say that the Sun’s activity can also play a role in climate change, but in his opinion, the evidence is not clear-cut. Altrock commented he doesn’t want to stick his neck out about how the Sun’s declining activity could affect Earth’s climate, and Penn added that Cycle 25 may provide a good opportunity to find out if the activity on the Sun contributes to climate change on Earth.

Source: Southwest Research Institute, press teleconference

Lead image thanks to César Cantú in Monterrey, Mexico at the Chilidog Observatory. See more at his website, Astronomía Y Astrofotografía.

You can follow Universe Today senior editor Nancy Atkinson on Twitter: @Nancy_A. Follow Universe Today for the latest space and astronomy news on Twitter @universetoday and on Facebook.

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Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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