Here at the Almanac, we have long believed that solar activity can influence weather here on Earth. Sunspot numbers have reached their lowest level in 5 years. Learn more about solar activity—and why it matters.
What is Solar Activity?
Just like planet Earth, the Sun has weather. It has storms. And its storms can affect Earth’s weather.
- Sunspots are magnetic storms on the surface of the Sun.
- Solar flares are strong flashes of x-rays and light energy that shoot off of the Sun’s surface into space at the speed of light.
- Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are massive clouds of gas and magnetic matter that are eruptions spreading into space.
- Other solar events include solar wind streams that come from the coronal holes on the Sun and solar energetic particles that are primarily released by CMEs.
Solar Flare. Credit: NASA
What is a Solar Cycle?
The number of sunspots (storms on the Sun) increase and decrease over time in a regular, approximately 11-year cycle, called the solar or sunspot cycle. More sunspots mean more solar activity. The highest number of sun spots in any given cycle is designated “solar maximum,” while the lowest number is designated “solar minimum.”
Eleven years in the life of the Sun from 1980 (start of solar maximum) to 1986 (near minimum) to 1989 (near maximum again). Credit: NASA
How Does Solar Activity Affect Weather and Earth?
Solar activity affects the Earth in many ways, some which we are still coming to understand.
- Damage to 21st-century satellites and other high-tech systems in space can be caused by an active Sun. Some of these systems are not protected by Earth’s atmospheric layers. So large solar flares have the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage to the world’s high-tech infrastructure—from GPS navigation to power grids to air travel to financial services.
- Radiation hazards for astronauts and satellites can be caused by a quiet Sun. Weak solar winds allow more galactic cosmic rays into the inner solar system.
- Weather on Earth can also be affected. According to Bob Berman, astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac: NOAA scientists have now concluded that four factors determined global temperatures: carbon dioxide levels, volcanic eruptions, Pacific El Niño pattern, and the Sun’s activity.
- Global climate change including long-term periods of global cold, rainfall, drought, and other weather shifts may also be influenced by solar cycle activity.
The Maunder Minimum or “Little Ice Age”
Times of depressed solar activity seem to correspond with times of global cold.
For example, between 1645 and 1715—during what we now call the “Maunder Minimum”—there were only about 50 sunspots (instead of the usual 40 to 50 thousand!) and harsh winters.
For 70 years, temperatures dropped by 1.8 to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
Painting by Abraham Hondius, “The Frozen Thames, looking Eastwards towards Old London Bridge,” 1677. Image credit: Museum of London.
Conversely, times of increased solar activity have corresponded with global warning. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Sun was active, and the European climate was quite mild.
Solar Cycle 24 Progression
The Sun is currently in Solar Cycle 24, which means the 24th cycle since record-keeping began in 1755.
Cycle 24 began in early 2008. During 2008 and 2009, there were almost NO sunspots, a very unusual situation that had not happened for almost a century. Due to the weak solar activity, galactic cosmic rays were at record levels.
The Sun’s record-breaking sleep ended in 2010. In 2011, sunspot counts jumped up. In February of 2012, sunspots peaked at 66.9.
Solar maximum activity peaked again in April 2014 at an exceptionally low 81.9 spots/day. Many cycles are double peaked, however, this is the first time the second peak was larger than the first peak (in February, 2012).
During 2015, sunspots declined steady to their 50’s. Thus far in 2016, sunspots continue their smooth, steady decline.
By end of 2016, sunspot numbers dropped to their 30’s and they just keep going down, indicating we are headed toward the Solar Minimum soon.
In 2017, the Sun has been devoid of sunspots more than 90% of the time.
What Does All This Mean?
We are seven years into Cycle 24. Sunspot counts have reached their lowest level in 5 years. Is the Solar Minimum approaching? When this happens, the Sun’s ultraviolet output will dramatically decrease and the upper atmosphere of the planet will cool, among other noticeable shifts.
Overall, quiet-to-average cycles, such as Cycle 24, normally mean a cooling pattern over the next few decades. In other words, temperatures become colder than they would have been otherwise. Sunspots are similar to a bathtub of lukewarm water; if you trickle in cold or hot water, it may take a while to notice the difference.
If this cooling phase on Earth, however, is offset by any warming caused by increasing greenhouse gases, they also raise the question of whether an eventual warming cycle could lead to more rapid warming on Earth than expected.
What do you think of our powerful Sun? Fortunately, Earth has atmospheric and magnetic layers to protect the planet from extreme radiation. However, do you believe solar activity affects our weather here on Earth, and how?