Solar Activity, Solar Cycle Predictions, and Sunspots

Information on solar activity, solar cycles, and what's up with the Sun now from The Old Farmer's Almanac

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Here at the Almanac, we believe that solar science, the study of sunspots and other solar activity, can influence weather here on Earth. In this article, we explain the basics of solar activity, solar cycles, and what's up with the Sun now.

What Is Solar Activity?

The Sun is always active. It 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 intense blooms of radiation that come from the release of the magnetic energy associated with sunspots. The NOAA ranks solar flares using five categories from weakest to stongest: A, B, C, M, and X. Each category is 10 times stronger than the one before it. Within each category, a flare is ranked from 1 to 9, according to strength, although X-class flares can go higher than 9. According to NASA, the most powerful solar flare recorded was an X28 (in 2003).
  • Coronal mass ejections (CMEs) are bursts of solar material (clouds of plasma and magnetic fields) that shoot off the sun's surface. 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: jpl.nasa.gov

What is a Solar Cycle?

The number of sunspots increase and decrease over time in a regular, approximately 11-year cycle, called the solar or sunspot cycle. The exact length of the cycle can vary. More sunspots mean increased solar activity—flares and CMEs. 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, spanning most of solar cycle 23, as it progressed from solar minimum (upper left) to maximum conditions and back to minimum (upper right) again, seen as a collage of ten full-disk images of the lower corona. 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 which generates geomagnetic storms.
    Even in inactive solar cycles, the Sun emits large solar flares—which could 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: Recently, NOAA scientists 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, based on historical evidence:

Times of depressed solar activity seem to correspond with times of global cold. For example, during the 70-year period from 1645 to 1715, few, if any, sunspots were seen, even during expected sunspot maximums. Western Europe entered a climate period known as the "Maunder Minimum" or "Little Ice Age." Temperatures dropped by 1.8 to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

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.

Yearly-averaged sunspot numbers from 1610 to 2008. Researchers believe upcoming Solar Cycle 24 will be similar to the cycle that peaked in 1928, marked by a red arrow. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Solar Cycle 24

The Sun is currently in an active phase of its 11-year solar cycle. The current cycle, called Solar Cycle 24, began in 2008. Here's some history of this cycle:

  • Solar Minimum: According to NOAA and NASA, the sunspot cycle hit an unusually deep bottom from 2007 to 2009. In fact, in 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.

  • Solar Maximum: The Sun's record-breaking sleep ended in 2010. In 2011, sunspot counts jumped up.  However, they remained fairly low with a small peak in February of 2012. Throughout 2013, the Sun was relatively quiet.

    As of August 2013, NASA reported, "The sun's global magnetic field is about to reverse polarity. This is a sign that Solar Max has arrived . . . " Yet, the the sunspot number was only 70 at this point; this may be the lowest peak since 1906 (which hit 64 sunspots). To get lower, you would need to go back in time to cycles 5 and 6 during the Dalton minimum in 1800s when sunspots counted around 50. Before that was the Maunder minimum from 1645 to 1715 when sunspots werer close to zero for about 75 years.

  • 2014 Update: The Sun seems to be heating up. The New Year started out with a burst of solar activity from active sunspots, leading to beautiful aurora borealis. As of January 10, the sunspot number was 138.  Stay tuned! We will update this sunspot page seasonally to report on the progress of Solar Cycle 24.

What does all this mean?

  • Some theorists believe that there is a correlation between Earth's temperatures and both the level of solar activity and the length of the solar cycle. The low solar activity levels and the delayed start to the solar cycle indicate that we're in a cooling phase. It's possible that the delayed start means a delayed end.
  • It is expected that Solar Cycle 24 and Solar Cycle 25 will be relatively quiet-to-average cycles, leading to a cooling pattern over the next few decades.
  • Temperatures have been colder than it would have been otherwise. Sunspots are simlar 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 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.

Would you like a call the next time the Sun erupts? X-flare alerts are available from http://spaceweathertext.com (text) and http://spaceweatherphone.com (voice).
 

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Comments

Is there any correlation

By P Bee

Is there any correlation between the quiet solar maximum (fewer solar flares than normal) in 2014 and the solar pole shift December 31, 2013?

Yes, P Bee.There is a direct

By Almanac Staff

Yes, P Bee.There is a direct correlation. The solar magnetic reversals occur close to, some say "at," the solar maximum. Here is more information:

http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/the-suns-magnetic-field-is-about-to-...

My father was an

By Prosser

My father was an astronautical research scientist for 60 years -inventing materials that would protect the space shuttle from burning up and freezing on it's voyage. Dinner conversation revolved around the facts of the solar flares and other space activity and their affect on the warming and cooling of the earth. It was the later part of the cold war days, so much of his research was secret, but surely NASA is able to make public the details of all of the years of research which explain in scientific terms the sun's afftects on our weather. Somehow we seem to only refer to the immediate lower atmosphere and neglect the giant weather maker in the sky! Someone needs to say " look up ,stupid, it's the sun!" Keep it simple, maybe people will begin to understand real science again.

I am doing a research paper

By kwits

I am doing a research paper on the subject of the facts and myths behind climate change. I purchased a great book recently called, "The Cooling Stars" that speaks in detail over the sun's impact over our climate. When CME's decreases due to diminishing number of sunpots, this condition allows CGRs from space to ionize our atmosphere to enhance cloud formation. The more clouds there are the less light reachers the earth to cause radiative heating to occur. The converse is true too.

Cheers,
KWITS

Thanks for sharing, Kwits. We

By Almanac Staff

Thanks for sharing, Kwits. We addressed this is in the 2009 Almanac as a color-page feature.

We are headed into another

By not sure

We are headed into another ice age. NOAA 10,000 year ice core analysis shows the subtle but incontrovertible evidence that we are sliding into a cold cycle that will establish a new ice age. The little "blip" of our AGW fantasy is just that, a little blip. See for yourself:

http://jonova.s3.amazonaws.com/graphs/lappi/gisp-last-10000-new.png

http://joannenova.com.au/2010/02/the-big-picture-65-million-years-of-temperature-swings/

AGW may make you a little warmer and you may loose that beachfront house, but global cooling will starve you.

Yes I Observed a trend to

By nohomehere

Yes I Observed a trend to cooler temps in the past decade and could see global warming should be off because of refletive properties of the atmospher in tandum w/ an assumtion tnat the sun is on an eliptical excuse me I mean the earth is on an eliptical orbit of sol , But! I am not sure where we are at this point moving farther away or closer? If I remember rightly it takes what ? 100,000 years to complete? Is there any effect occuring from this? Thank you

I am wondering where I can

By Susan Hudson

I am wondering where I can find sun activity for a given month in terms I can understand. I am trying to find a pattern with my young son's behavior. Lunar has not proven any correlation and I am wondering about solar.

Who was counting Suns Spots

By Pipeline Guy

Who was counting Suns Spots in 1610? What sort of clarity would the elescope they use have? And what condition would their eyes be in after staring into the sun without any modern protection?

My work with Tellurics on buried pipelines suggests that Sun Spot activity and it's effect on the magnetic field of the earth is a more recent discovery.

Pipeline Guy, According to

By geopark

Pipeline Guy,

According to the NASA/Marshall site:

http://solarscience.msfc.nasa.gov/SunspotCycle.shtml

"In 1610, shortly after viewing the sun with his new telescope, Galileo Galilei (or was it Thomas Harriot?) made the first European observations of Sunspots. Continuous daily observations were started at the Zurich Observatory in 1849 and earlier observations have been used to extend the records back to 1610."

geopark

I posted this on my Facebook

By Daniel Rittgers

I posted this on my Facebook page(Notes)

I do not see a date (year) on this article.

When did this occur, "Recently (201x?), NOAA scientists finally concluded that four factors determined global temperatures: carbon dioxide levels, volcanic eruptions, Pacific El Niño pattern, and the Sun's activity. "

The dates are listed

By Jena

The dates are listed throughout the article. The picture at the top is of the 2013 almanac, which means this information is from this years almanac. Also the article talks about August 2013... Which means the article was written between now and then. This has been happening all along. El Nino is an annual occurrence, but according to the patterns it is catastrophic every 7 years. It just so happens that this 11th year cycle of the sunspots, and the 7th year el Nino, are occurring in the same year. This can only mean worldwide disasters.

Hi, Daniel, We consulted Bob

By Almanac Staff

Hi, Daniel,

We consulted Bob Berman about the article that you cite from the Times Union. Here is his response:

It's all in my book, The Sun's Heartbeat -- now out in paperback. All the credits, and the people at NOAA who have come to this conclusion, and told me so in person during my research visits there, and the evidence behind it.
Best, Bob

Daniel, FYI, the book was published in 2011.

In looking further, we found an explanation on this page (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/pd/climate/factsheets/whatfactors.pdf ), which, at the bottom, cites its date as 2007.

We provide the link above to shed light on your question. More information can be found by searching the Web using relevant key words.

We hope this helps.

Very good article. Global

By dg

Very good article. Global warming it's a big scam.

No... Global warming is not a

By David M Robinson

No... Global warming is not a 'big scam' - imho, the accepted view is incorrect in some important areas, but generally we are seeing a change in the global climate towards warmer temperatures, and this article does not imply that either. If you read carefully you will see it say that climate change has been 'mitigated' by the temporary low output from the sun and has 'bought us time'.
In fact I think looking at the very cool summer of 2013, it has done more than offset the slight warming due to climate change, it has started to switch into a mini ice age similar to Maunder minimum - I am quite happy for my name to be used to describe the 2013 "Robinson minimum" if you like :)

I believe that there is a latency of around a year in the Earth's atmosphere which means that normally we don't even feel the effect, but due to the last quite weak maximum, and the last extended minimum, we are feeling a very cold summer across all of the northern hemisphere. I live in the southern hemisphere, and I can assure you the effect is global, our winter is starting out very cool also.

Rev. 16:8,9 says That the Sun

By nohomehere on April 15

Rev. 16:8,9 says That the Sun will flare up and scorch the earth. I have read the Bible over the past 40 years and it does have astronomical data that is exact and correct, as they have the history of the mesopotamians and babylonians early observations of everything that moved in the heavens and there timing ect... so as also these luner eclipses as recent as today which are being called bloodmoons! Or the so called star that moved over where Jesus was born and the wise men who saw the sign or star of the king to be born! I find this a frightening thing to here scientists say they expect a possible direct hit on the earth with a solar flare, It would destroy the power grid and I can't even count the numerus technologies effected ! mankind would suffer and all living things for that matter!Like in the movie terminator sarah conner says youll need a sun tan lotion with a uv protection of 10 million ! I do have a question for anyone reading this . If there was a solar flare to hit earth would it heat the earth ? and if so but how many degrees ? and could it cause the ocean to steam and make a cannopy of clouds ? and would thoese clouds cool the earth?and would it become darker and cause less food to grow? NOHOMEHERE

maybe global warming as a

By AndyMan

maybe global warming as a result of CO2 is a scam after all!!

new NASA research says CO2 is a global COOLER, reflecting more solar energy during the day than it retains at night

http://iceagenow.info/2013/04/nasa-study-shows-co2-cools-atmosphere/

You have failed to

By There is more to the story

You have failed to realize/recall from high school science. The weather is driven by the sun. Daily weather by the sun. This has been known for decades, I heard it as matter of fact in the 60s. Extremes in weather are driven by Solar flares and sunspot activities. If you do a little more study, you will learn that the 3.7/10,000 ppm of CO2 actually reflects more harmful solar radiation than is reflected back in the narrow spectrum of infra red relfected back. This was identified and proven around 1900. In fact, they proved over a 100 years ago that the CO2 100% reflection of this narrow band of infra red is reflected back at 25% concentration. That increasing the concentration does not change the energy level. You cannot reflect back more than 100%... Thus the premise that increasing CO2 would increase global temps. The admitted to .9deg F over the last 100 yrs does cannot be argued is a result of CO2 elevation.
Another interesting fact, many of the scientist from varying backgrounds who originally signed onto the global warming theory have apologized and now assert the theory was poorly based. Even this year, the original NASA scientist that proposed this "theory" has now been peer reviewed by NASA scientist that his data was faulty and conclusion as well. They also were the ones that said this low level of CO2 was responsible for reflecting harmful radiation, similar to what the Ozone does. There too often is more. NPR is not a good resource... other than vague siting of exaggerated assertions

Dear "You have failed

By Alchemist51

Dear "You have failed to":
Question: How does an optically clear gas like CO2 relect light? We know that it absorbs infra-red light in the mid IR at about 2200 cm-1. This is a narrow and intense absorption peak. It probably absorbs in the UV because is has sigma and pi bonded electrons (4 each) in the C=O double bonds. It also has 8 non-bonding electrons (4 on each oxygen). These have excited states that require energy from light in the UV region of the spectra. (I am not familiar with its near or far IR spectra) However, it is optically clear to visible light. CO2 does not reflect light. (If I am wrong, please provide the mechanism) However, it can absorb and re-emit UV light as the excited electrons drop back down to the ground state (this is certainly not reflection). This, however, is not true of IR frequencies. Since IR electromagnetic radiation causes polar bonds to vibrate the energy is discipated and not re-emitted. That is why in IR, one can talk about transmitance and absorbance, but never emission spectra.
Lastly, ozone does not reflect any light either. It aborbs UV light in the process of undergoing a multi-step chain reaction cycle called the Chapman Cycle. This energy is used as activation energy in the process.

If we understand solar cycles

By jwcoons

If we understand solar cycles ultimately determine weather and there is a possible coming mini ice age is a "carbon tax" advisable for any reason other than political?

I love the great info

By Anonymousx99

I love the great info here..thank you orbs of light. Wax and wane cycles flow in conformity to all involved..where is the wax and wane of sirius a&b above?..have we passed the harmful radiation of that stellar dog encounter..or is its fifty year switching creating seventy year wobbles in our zone

I wanted to see actual

By siouxlin

I wanted to see actual pictures of sunspot activity before, during and after the Earthquake in Japan last April, 2012. Is their a site ? I've googled similar questions.

i have for many years gone to

By carolyn radcliff

i have for many years gone to space weather and the earthquake and volcano usgs real time maps...i was watching have been, and still am. i can't see a connection on the number of spots, the solar wind speed is always high when the quakes happen. maybe a earth reaction to the suns encounter with our atmosphere.

To see sunspots and other

By Almanac Staff

To see sunspots and other solar activity on a certain day, or range of days, you might try the following site from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory:

http://sdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/data/aiahmi/

Input the date range that you'd like to see. Select the type of instrument, such as the "HMI Intensitygram (orange)," the "AIA 171 (gold)," or the "Composite AIA 171, HMI Magnetogram." Click submit. You will get a movie of all images for your range, showing sun activity.

You might also be interested in our article on sunspots:

http://www.almanac.com/content/what-are-sunspots

Hope this helps!

Has anyone produced a chart

By Prairie Bound

Has anyone produced a chart of solar cycles that parallels weather trends in the central United States? I thought I had heard of such a thing but haven't found it.

So are these solar flares at

By farmgal

So are these solar flares at their peak in 2012? I wonder if that is related to the Myans? So we are in our second year of drought NE Ok, is the drought related to the solar flares Xstorms? Because I am very tired of the drought I am a farmer Thanks

sunspots are supports to peak

By wild and wonderful-aka-ww.

sunspots are supports to peak 2013?

I regard the solar cycle 24

By CptWayne

I regard the solar cycle 24 is weak in terms of sunspots only. It is these that give us the extra UV and X-rays which affect climate. Of course, it may not be weaker in some other less important respects.

How can you possibly say that

By katheeqt

How can you possibly say that the solar cycle is weak? You report on the X flares (3), and fact that there has been 0 sun spotless days in'12 , or that people who live in high lat. say they have never seen such active and continuous auroras should convince you. also I live in MI and it has been the warmest, no snow, I can ever remember(not over yet I know). But if you still must convince yourself I have hard evidence. Just visit the solar dynamics observatory website-they have a cool tool-under the 'data' heading go to access more data then go to*LMSAL iSolsearch* you can use the tool to research any day or span of days to see all kinds of different data regarding the sun. Just compare Nov 2011-now with 2000-01, you will clearly see how cool this tool is and I hope in the April update you do not say WEAK!!!!

The sunspots are much shorter

By CptWayne

The sunspots are much shorter in duration. Normally, sunspots last about 30 days. This cycle, they seem to last about 3 days. So, it is a much weaker cycle. This does not mean that the solar flares are weaker, just the overall sunspot count and duration. Much weaker than the previous cycles. Don't seem to hear much about this aspect of it.

The sunspot numbers are 1/2

By Anoymus

The sunspot numbers are 1/2 of those from a normal cycle. An extended cycle is also a very weak one. Similarly, the solar zonal flow for cycle 25 has yet to appear. This means a very long cycle 24.

Our reports come from NASA,

By Almanac Staff

Our reports come from NASA, NOAA, and SDO. Thus far, March has certainly been active with Sunspot AR1429. This makes sense as the next solar maximum is expected in the 2013-2014 time frame. In terms of the overall cycle, NASA experts believe it will be a "below-average cycle" with less than your historically normal number of sunspots. However, you are correct in saying that "weak" is not an accurate description. Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather.

This is one of the best

By MorElectricHeating

This is one of the best articles we have read on solar activity and long-range weather. Very complete and 100% accurate. Indeed, the developments of 2011 are confirmation of fading spots according to L&P theory, so the American Astronomical Society apparently thinks it may be worse than Dalton, calling it a possible second Maunder Minimum! Solar cycle 25 and beyond could be greatly delayed or not happen at all! "If we are right, this could be the last solar maximum we'll see for a few decades," Hill said. "That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth's climate."

As we wait for the 3rd brutal winter in a row the question is "How much worse will they get?" Sound the alarm to all the world: LITTLE ICE AGE is coming. In another stunning development, the sun had no sunspots yesterday! The whole world should stand in awe. I assure you that here at Mor Electric Heating we are VERY closely following how bad the winters will get.

I agree and wonder if this

By Bill Sabalseed

I agree and wonder if this spring,the coldest I can remember,is related to this.I'm not a fan of cold weather and hope not but it's looking like it will be colder the rest of my life.

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