Sunspots Still Missing. Update on Solar Cycle 24

Last August I wrote about Solar Cycle 24, and I continue to get requests for an update on what is happening with sunspots and the geomagnetic cycle of the sun. The original August 3 post on The Agonist can be found here:

The quick answer is that the sun remains in an unusually extended solar minimum. The sun’s geomagnetic field reverses polarity roughly every 11 years. At the peak of this solar cycle, the field is very active, represented by the frequency with which the field breaks through the sun’s surface, causing sunspots, solar flares, and an active solar wind which brings electromagnetic radiation to the earth. This radiation interferes with satellite transmissions, causes brilliant displays of the aurora around the earth’s poles, and can pose risks to passengers on airplanes flying above a certain altitude. During the solar minimum all of this activity is much reduced or disappears completely for awhile until the new cycle kicks in.

The recently completely Solar Cycle 23 ended in 2008, and by now the sun should be displaying more geomagnetic activity each month. There should be, for example, about 50 sunspots appearing by now each month, peaking at around 250 a month in 2013. The cycle would normally ramp down after that until the next solar minimum is reached around 2019 when a new cycle will commence.

The problem – if it can be described this way – is that while the new cycle 24 has kicked in, it remains in a minimum stage. While there should be have been 50 sunspots in December, there were only 16. During some months last year there were no sunspots at all. At this pace of slow growth in the cycle, by the time we reach 2013 there likely will not be 250 sunspots per month. Half of that number may even be unlikely.

Mankind has studied sunspots for centuries, and the solar cycle has been plotted against historical weather data to indicate that earth’s temperature heats up when the cycle is very active, and cools down when the cycle is very quiet. This makes sense, because less radiant heat is reaching the earth if the sun lacks sun flares, and if the solar wind that pulses through the solar system is more subdued than normal. While scientists agree it makes sense for earth to be colder now during an extended solar minimum, they lack evidence establishing just how strong this link really is. For example, does a cooling effect from the solar minimum cancel out any man-made warming as a result of carbon dioxide buildup?

Anecdotally, from China to Britain to the U.S., winter this year seems to be much colder than usual with heavier snowfalls, just as autumn and summer were cooler than normal. The extended solar cycle minimum the sun is now experiencing many not be the principal or direct cause of our winter weather, but many would agree it is at least a factor, and a growing number of scientists think it could well be the principal contributor to a harsh winter.

Hence many more eyes than usual are watching this current solar cycle. There have been other instances where the solar minimum is extended for years – the longest cycle in fact was for 16 years. There have been two specific instances where the sun went extremely quiet, in hibernation really, for over 50 years, and weather on earth was decisively cooler. One such event during much of the 17th century seems tied to what is known as the Little Ice Age. This is yet another reason to monitor the solar cycle carefully, in case we are at the beginning of one of these hibernation periods.

Due so with caution, however. Watching the solar cycle can give you a sense of complete helplessness. Short of a comet or asteroid hitting the earth, and possibly including man-made effects like global warming or a nuclear winter, nothing is more important to life on this planet than what happens with the sun.

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Numerian is a devoted author and poster on The Agonist, specializing in business, finance, the global economy, and politics. In real life he goes by the non-nom de plume of Garrett Glass and hides out in Oak Park, IL, where he spends time writing novels on early Christianity (and an occasional tract on God and religion). You can follow his writing career on his website,

10 CommentsLeave a comment

  • The little ice age and the Maunder Minimum seem pretty obviously linked. Where in all these fancy climate change models is the variability in the largest total input – solar intensity – accounted for? CO2 is merely a coefficient, and a pitifully small one compared to this.

    Also they are saying that the magnetic north pole is suddenly moving around fast. I wonder if the field of charged particles also acts to keep the earth’s magnetic field aligned, and the lack of solar energy would cause it to wobble more??

  • The folks at noted a significant increase in sunspot activity in December. A few days ago there were actually two sunspots on the sun at the same time. This was a first for 2009. They said the new cycle had begun to pick up. There are none today.

    The weather here in BC has been very mild with little snowfall. There was a long, open fall and a slow start to winter. Weather people attribute this to the El Nino gaining strength in the South Pacific. Weekly updates are here:

    They predict a further strengthening of El Nino lasting through spring in the northern hemisphere. I can definitely deal with that. Last year we had a non-summer and some of my veggies gave up. The last time we had an El Nino like this, we had no snow left by February. Sounds good, but then there’s so little snow left in the mountains that the river level goes way down by the end of fall.

  • Here in the frozen north, we had an exceptionally warm late summer into fall (after a miserable spring/summer). Outside of a few dips, winter temps have been mild…it rained all day on Christmas. For me it means more snow, but that’s an effect of living so close to Lake Superior and warm temps.

    And frankly, i hope that it is an el Nino and that it does gain strength. Last time we got the strong end of an el nino we were seeing high summer temps by May…this is a place where frost/snow in July is not impossible. (there were late June frosts last year)

  • There’s nothing ancedotal about snow settling in London as it is for thesecond time this winter.

    It may snow in London, but it normally does not settle.

  • Goldman Sacks is reported to have sold a new sunspot fund heavily in the Fall of 2009. A spokesperson said “Our executives have a direct line to God, and convinced him to reduce the number of sunspots in 2010, in return for a position in our Sunspot Future Fund. We regard having God as investor give us the necessary edge for us to anticipate natural events.”

    In related news, Goldman Sacks is forming a exploratory fund with God as the main investor, with the objective of taking the Vatican Private, and opening a new market in indulgences, indulgence futures and and new sainthood exchange. The spokesaint stated “The Church had an exploratory attempt to sell indulgences in the 1500s, but investors and the public were not ready for this product. We believe that there is a ready market for this a new innovative product, complete with Collateralized Indulgence Swaps (CISs), Collateralized Indulgence Options (CIOs), a futures market in sainthood, and hedging on the Seven Deadly Sins (SDSs), especially greed.”

    The spokesaint continued, “We believe that the ever increasing amounts of greed makes this a fertile ground for this new innovative product.”

  • As snow blankets UK, Britons ask why they can’t seem to plow ahead

    As much as 16 inches fell in parts of the UK, causing a 1,000-vehicle backup and canceling school and work. Britain is experiencing its coldest winter in decades, while a similar chill has gripped other parts of Europe.

    The Christian Science Monitor, By Ben Quinn, January 6

    London – Snow wrought seemingly endless woes across the UK Tuesday, prompting the customary bout of national soul-searching about why a few flakes of the white stuff almost always causes Britain to grind to a virtual standstill.

    Typically starved of white Christmases, Britons tend to have special place in their hearts for snow, but after waking up this morning to find much of the country blanketed, a familiar dread set in for many. In some parts of southern England, between 35cm (14 inches) and 40cm (16 inches) of snow are estimated to have fallen.

    Thousands of schools were closed. Some airports, including London Gatwick, ceased operations and others, such as Europe’s busiest, London Heathrow, were forced to cancel long lists of flights.

    The inability of public services to cope, meanwhile, led to troops being sent in overnight after hundreds of vehicles were stranded along one stretch of a busy southern English highway.

    They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm.

  • Most Recent IMF, SW, and Solar Data (.pdf).

    Page 4 is the interesting one. Charts of sunspot numbers from the transitions between the previous two cycles are compared to the current transition and there is a noticeable difference. The last cycle (23) ended very slowly and the current cycle (24) is starting very slowly too.

    The first picture on page 4 also shows cycle 23 having a significantly smaller peak than the previous 22, so perhaps 24 will have an even smaller peak? I don’t have enough knowledge in this area, but is the sunspot cycle winding down to another extended minimum?

  • He is the chief solar scientist at NASA. He has adjusted downwards the estimated peak for solar cycle 24. He thinks it will constitute a weaker cycle than 23. While it won’t turn into something like the Dalton Minimum, he’s not ruling out that cycle 25 could do so.

  • NASA Science News, June 4

    Earth and space are about to come into contact in a way that’s new to human history. To make preparations, authorities in Washington DC are holding a meeting: The Space Weather Enterprise Forum at the National Press Club on June 8th.

    Richard Fisher, head of NASA’s Heliophysics Division, explains what it’s all about:

    “The sun is waking up from a deep slumber, and in the next few years we expect to see much higher levels of solar activity. At the same time, our technological society has developed an unprecedented sensitivity to solar storms. The intersection of these two issues is what we’re getting together to discuss.”

    The National Academy of Sciences framed the problem two years ago in a landmark report entitled “Severe Space Weather Events—Societal and Economic Impacts.” It noted how people of the 21st-century rely on high-tech systems for the basics of daily life. Smart power grids, GPS navigation, air travel, financial services and emergency radio communications can all be knocked out by intense solar activity. A century-class solar storm, the Academy warned, could cause twenty times more economic damage than Hurricane Katrina.

    One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.

  • Science Magazine, by Govert Schilling, May 26

    BOSTON — For decades, astronomers and climatologists have debated whether a prolonged 17th century cold spell, best documented in Europe, could have been caused by erratic behavior of the sun. Now, an American solar physicist says he has new evidence to suggest that the sun was indeed the culprit.

    The sun isn’t as constant as it appears. Instead, its surface is regularly beset by storms of swirling magnetic fields. As a result, like a teenager plagued with acne, the face of the sun often sprouts relatively dark and short-lived “sunspots,” which appear when strong magnetic fields inhibit the upwelling of hotter gas from below. The number of those spots waxes and wanes regularly in an 11-year cycle. However, even that cycle isn’t immutable.

    In 1893, English astronomer Edward Maunder, studying historical records, noted that the cycle essentially stopped between 1645 and 1715. Instead, the sun was almost devoid of sunspots during this period. In 1976, American solar physicist John “Jack” Eddy suggested there might have been a causal link between this “Maunder Minimum” in the number of sunspots and the contemporaneous Little Ice Age, when average temperatures in Europe were a degree centigrade lower than normal.

    One might expect the absence of dark spots to make the sun slightly brighter and hotter. But the absence of other signs of magnetic activity, such as bright patches of very hot gas known as faculae more than compensates for this effect. So in fact, the total energy output of the sun is lower during a solar minimum. If the minimum is prolonged, as it was in the second half of the 17th century, the dip in output might indeed affect Earth’s climate.


    What’s more, detailed observations from orbiting solar telescopes have shown that the small faculae pump out more energy per unit surface area than the larger ones already known to disappear along with the sunspots. So if the small faculae start to fade, too, that would have an even stronger effect on the total energy production of the sun. “There’s tantalizing evidence that [during the Maunder Minimum] the sun may have actually dimmed more than we have thought until now,” Foukal says.

    One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.

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