What's Wrong with the Sun? (Nothing)

July 11, 2008
The solar cycle, 1995-2015. The "noisy" curve traces measured sunspot numbers; the smoothed curves are predictions. Credit: D. Hathaway/NASA/MSFC.

Stop the presses! The sun is behaving normally. So says NASA solar physicist David Hathaway. "There have been some reports lately that Solar Minimum is lasting longer than it should. That's not true. The ongoing lull in sunspot number is well within historic norms for the solar cycle."

This report, that there's nothing to report, is newsworthy because of a growing buzz in lay and academic circles that something is wrong with the sun. Sun Goes Longer Than Normal Without Producing Sunspots declared one recent press release. A careful look at the data, however, suggests otherwise.

But first, a status report: "The sun is now near the low point of its 11-year activity cycle," says Hathaway. "We call this 'Solar Minimum.' It is the period of quiet that separates one Solar Max from another."

During Solar Max, huge sunspots and intense solar flares are a daily occurance. Auroras appear in Florida. Radiation storms knock out satellites. Radio blackouts frustrate hams. The last such episode took place in the years around 2000-2001.

During Solar Minimum, the opposite occurs. Solar flares are almost non-existant while whole weeks go by without a single, tiny sunspot to break the monotony of the blank sun. This is what we are experiencing now.

Although minima are a normal aspect of the solar cycle, some observers are questioning the length of the ongoing minimum, now slogging through its 3rd year.

"It does seem like it's taking a long time," allows Hathaway, "but I think we're just forgetting how long a solar minimum can last." In the early 20th century there were periods of quiet lasting almost twice as long as the current spell. Most researchers weren't even born then.

Hathaway has studied international sunspot counts stretching all the way back to 1749 and he offers these statistics: "The average period of a solar cycle is 131 months with a standard deviation of 14 months. Decaying solar cycle 23 (the one we are experiencing now) has so far lasted 142 months--well within the first standard deviation and thus not at all abnormal. The last available 13-month smoothed sunspot number was 5.70. This is bigger than 12 of the last 23 solar minimum values."

In summary, "the current minimum is not abnormally low or long."

The longest minimum on record, the Maunder Minimum of 1645-1715, lasted an incredible 70 years. Sunspots were rarely observed and the solar cycle seemed to have broken down completely. The period of quiet coincided with the Little Ice Age, a series of extraordinarily bitter winters in Earth's northern hemisphere. Many researchers are convinced that low solar activity, acting in concert with increased volcanism and possible changes in ocean current patterns, played a role in that 17th century cooling.

For reasons no one understands, the sunspot cycle revived itself in the early 18th century and has carried on since with the familiar 11-year period. Because solar physicists do not understand what triggered the Maunder Minimum or exactly how it influenced Earth's climate, they are always on the look-out for signs that it might be happening again.

The quiet of 2008 is not the second coming of the Maunder Minimum, believes Hathaway. "We have already observed a few sunspots from the next solar cycle," he says. "This suggests the solar cycle is progressing normally."

What's next? Hathaway anticipates more spotless days, maybe even hundreds, followed by a return to Solar Max conditions in the years around 2012.

Source: Science@NASA, by Dr. Tony Phillips

Explore further: Highest tides for 18.6 years set for this week in UK

Related Stories

Highest tides for 18.6 years set for this week in UK

September 29, 2015

Many places along the UK coastline will experience the highest tide for 18.6 years between the 19th and 30th of September, as a result of the co-incidence of a series of astronomical factors.

Solar activity is declining—what to expect?

August 17, 2015

(Phys.org)—Is Earth slowly heading for a new ice age? Looking at the decreasing number of sunspots, it may seem that we are entering a nearly spotless solar cycle which could result in lower temperatures for decades. "The ...

No, we aren't heading into a 'mini ice age'

July 27, 2015

Wouldn't it be great if scientists could make their minds up? One minute they're telling us our planet is warming up due to human activity and we run the risk of potentially devastating environmental change. Next, they're ...

Researchers show new Ice Age may begin by 2030

July 17, 2015

The arrival of intense cold similar to the weather that raged during the "Little Ice Age", which froze the world during the 17th century and in the beginning of the 18th century, is expected in the years 2030 to 2040. These ...

Irregular heartbeat of the Sun driven by double dynamo

July 9, 2015

A new model of the Sun's solar cycle is producing unprecedentedly accurate predictions of irregularities within the Sun's 11-year heartbeat. The model draws on dynamo effects in two layers of the Sun, one close to the surface ...

Recommended for you

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?

Image: Pluto's blue sky

October 9, 2015

Pluto's haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn's moon ...

Blue skies, frozen water detected on Pluto

October 8, 2015

Pluto has blue skies and patches of frozen water, according to the latest data out Thursday from NASA's unmanned New Horizons probe, which made a historic flyby of the dwarf planet in July.

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (10) Jul 11, 2008
2012, the Thirteenth Baktun! Don't forget.
2.2 / 5 (9) Jul 11, 2008
13th eh? Does the Baktun get a Bar Mitzvah?
3.5 / 5 (14) Jul 11, 2008
phew! that's good news. I thought man was to blame for the slow start to the solar cycle too.
2.4 / 5 (12) Jul 11, 2008
I wasnt aware that anyone thought there was something wrong with the sun. The article talks about the "growing buzz" and doesnt cite anyones actual statement. I think its a classic example of the unfounded denialist reactional attitude. Theyre reacting like the public thinks theres a space alien with sars causing climate change using scalar weapons aimed at the sun, and they are the only smart ones on earth. Nobody thought there was something wrong with the sun except for them, right before they found out there wasnt. I think the public concern was more to do with what the solar lull means for earth, not "whats wrong with the sun and why is the government going to blow it up with a nuclear missile that bigfoot stole from the moon monsters?"
4.4 / 5 (9) Jul 11, 2008
Errr... Everyone gets a little worried when the sun does things that we don't think it should be doing. I think both denialists and swallowists can agree on that one.
3.7 / 5 (9) Jul 12, 2008
Yes there were some long solar minimums in the early 1900's.

Thats why 1910 was the coldest year in the 20th century.

1.3 / 5 (6) Jul 12, 2008
hey... why do we have the solar cycle in the first place???
3.8 / 5 (4) Jul 12, 2008
hey... why do we have the solar cycle in the first place???

2.9 / 5 (11) Jul 12, 2008
Yeah, we only know one specie which could be responsible for changing such things. So we blame us. It is hard to blame unanimate objects (physics) or harmless animals (nature) because there cannot be a punishment or a passionate blame involved. (btw. the title is really funny)
3.1 / 5 (7) Jul 12, 2008
Sauspans and Kettles,

Unpublished work by Solar Astronomers in New Mexico shows that the mean magnetic field strength in the umbras of solar sunspots have been decreasing linearly at ~ 88 gauss per year
since the late 1990's. If this trend continues until 2015, it will mean that sunspots will disappear after that date (stong magnetic fiels are need to cool the centre of sunspots).

The polar magnetic field strength has also decrease significantly starting in the late 1990's.

Both of the indocators DO imply that the Sun is not behaving as it should.
2.4 / 5 (5) Jul 12, 2008
It's behaving like I have never seen in my life time. That's all that matters to me. I wasn't here in 1645-1715... I am really starting to doubt any theories that low sunspot counts have much to do with ice ages.
2.7 / 5 (7) Jul 12, 2008
With Global Warming on many people's minds, do we have any ideas of the best way to lessen the impact on our future, or maybe a possible relief of its possible ravages or even a possible key to its eventual reversal. Many scientific experts have proposed
Solar Power, Source of Endless Energy
3.8 / 5 (10) Jul 12, 2008
Just because gloabl warming is on many people's minds does not make it real. With almost two decades of media brainwashing I could put anything (no matter how ridiculous) on people's minds.

The scientific evidence is now starting to filter in that the earth will actually cool over the next 30 years rather than warm. This will leave a large number of media "experts", government pundits, and environmental loonies witha large amount of egg all over their collective faces.
2.3 / 5 (9) Jul 13, 2008
"With Global Warming on many people's minds, do we have any ideas of the best way to lessen the impact on our future, or maybe a possible relief of its possible ravages or even a possible key to its eventual reversal."
Yes, first end a question with a question mark but aside of that, quit focusing on a nonscientific hypothesis. I would suggest the same thing for those that hypothesize that a world ending meteor is surely going to hit the planet any second now.
2 / 5 (7) Jul 13, 2008
If we ignore the morality and look at the practicality, then if humans are not responsible for the recent warming, it is even more important that we become able to control at least our effect on the climate.

If we're changing the climate, then at least if we stop the change eventually stops. But if climate change is being done unto us, then we'd better take control as much as we can, as neither global warming nor another ice age would be benign.
4.1 / 5 (7) Jul 14, 2008
Good luck controlling climate change! You going to install a thermostat on the sun or slow down the winds and currents? I'd suggest a more logical and sensible solution, try to adapt with it.
4.2 / 5 (6) Jul 14, 2008
Myopic... Nearsighted... We spend too much time thinking we are the center of the universe. Remember: recorded civilization is less than 5000 years old; 10,000 years ago we were still in skins, living in caves and peeking out to see if the ice had started to melt. The earth is 4.5 BILLION years old. We are but a germ on a flea riding an elephant. Humility, PLEASE!
2.8 / 5 (4) Jul 14, 2008

Unpublished work by Solar Astronomers in New Mexico ...

Information like this that isn't published usually has a reason why it isn't published. Either the methodology is questionable (and the authors know it) OR the authors are questionable (and the peer review boards know it). If you can find something that is peer reviewed that shows this, please post it up or the link to it on http://arxiv.org/ if it is going to be in print.

Regardless, while I agree that there is a warming trend on earth (which can't be denied by anyone that actually looks at the data), the cause is a bit dubious. One, if you look at the overall warming trend for earth based off of ice core samples, we are currently in a warming trend at the tail end of an ice age.
(I know wikipedia isn't the best source, but for here it should suffice. We are currently on the left in the graph)

According to this graph, the earth warming another 3 C or so wouldn't be too terribly out of the question. Fluctuating global temperatures over the last 5000 years has had heavy and relatively rapid swings of /- 1 C. This leads me to believe that we should EXPECT a slow and gradual warming of the earth for the (geologically) near future and possibly a very sudden and rapid cooling event that will likely wipe out species in massive numbers.

While I believe that we are contributing (at least a somewhat) to global warming with green house gases, I'm REALLY surprised that there hasn't been more of an outcry over continued deforestation. The planet has it's own CO2 regulating method (jungles/forests) and we (man) has been cutting it down in industrial style ever since europeans decided to start clear cutting their own forests in the 19th century (of which North America, South America, Africa, and Asia quickly followed). This has to have an effect every bit as much as cumbustion engines.

Oh, and don't forget that unless people want next to zero change in CO2 output coupled with huge, massive habitat loss, to make significant amounts of energy (like what is required to charge 800 million vehicles every day or two) [number of global vehicles NOW i.e. this number will only go up, from a lecture abstract by John Heywood, found at: http://mitworld.m...deo/350/ ] will require copious quantities of nuclear reactors and places to put the resulting nuclear waste (see Yuca Mountain).
5 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2008

One of the authors on this research is a Professor Emiratus who has hundreds of peer reviewed publications. The only reason that this research has not hit the airwaves is the time-delay in peer-reveiw. Just hold your breath for a second or two and you will read it in the hallowed halls of published research.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 29, 2009
Ninderthana. I think I'll wait for access to the article...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.