Where Have The Sunspots Gone?

| February 10, 2008

525px-Sunspot_with_Earth_Comparison.jpg
(graphic from Wikipedia showing normal sunspot activity)

Our wonderful local star, the sun, is a active middle age star. Stars are unimaginably huge, and live billions of years. They are in essence gigantic nuclear furnaces, in essence a continuous hydrogen explosion kept in check by the massive size of the star.

Sunspots are areas on the surface of the sun that are the point where an intense magnetic field of flux pierce the surface of the sun. They are marked by lower temperatures than the surrounding surface, mostly because the magnetic field is keeping things from churning around as it should.

It is common for people on earth to think of the sun as a constant. But interestingly enough the sun’s output varies widely over the centuries. In fact I have made the point in earlier postings, the sun is the largest source of energy on our planet and any opinions on a warming planet should focus on how much more energy we are receiving from the sun.

Now comes news from Popular Science, that the sun may be entering a quiet phase (with lower energy output):

Every day, scientists hoping to see an increase in solar activity train their instruments at the sun as it crosses the sky. This is no idle academic pursuit: A lull in solar action could potentially drive the planet’s temperature down, or even prompt a mini Ice Age.

For millennia, thermonuclear forces inside the star have followed a regular rhythm, causing its magnetic field to peak and ebb, on average, every 11 years. Space weathermen are watching for telltale increases in sunspots, which would signal the start of a new cycle, predicted to have started last March and expected to peak in 2012. “When the sun’s active, it’s a little bit brighter,” explains Ken Tapping, a solar researcher and project director for Canada’s National Research Council.

Tapping oversees the operation of a 60-year-old radio telescope that he calls a “stethoscope for the sun.” Recent magnetic field readings are as low as he’s ever seen, he says, and he’s worked with the instrument for more than 25 years. If the sun remains this quiet for another a year or two, it may indicate the star has entered a downturn that, if history is any precedent, could trigger a planetary cold spell that could bring massive snowfall and severe weather to the Northern Hemisphere.

The last such solar funk corresponded with a period of bitter cold that began around 1650 and lasted, with intermittent spikes of warming, until 1715. While there were competing causes for the climatic shift—including the Black Death’s depopulation of tree-cutting Europeans and, more substantially, increased volcanic activity spewing ash into the atmosphere—the sun’s lethargy likely had something to do with it.

Am I the only one who would find it ironic if the whole world went mad worrying that we were about to cause massive problems with global warming a few years before a “Little Ice Age”?. The last time we had a lack of sunspots was a period during the last little ice age referred to as the Maunder Minimum.

It’s far to early in the solar cycle to tell if anything like this is taking place, but we may come to hope for global warming if the sun is going into a quiet cycle.

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Category: Climate Change, History, Main, Space

About the Author ()

Bruce Henderson is a former Marine who focuses custom data mining and visualization technologies on the economy and other disasters.

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