Climate Change and the Quiet Sun

Something strange, very strange, is happening on the sun. On October 8th, NOAA’s Solar Cycle Progression monthly update report came out.

Sunspot activity has dropped off to its lowest point in over 100 years, perhaps to its lowest since the Dalton Minimum of the early 1800s.

The sun is headed into a quiet phase. The evidence is mounting. Sunspot activity is down. Solar flux is down. The sun’s magnetic field is decreasing linearly toward zero by 2026. The long term trend points towards a less active sun.

Solar physicists believe a prolonged period of low solar activity lasting more than one cycle is coming.

This change in the sun’s behavior could have profound long-term implications for climate change over the next several decades.

What’s Happening on the Sun?

NOAA's October 8th 2012 Sunspot Number Update

2012 Solar Sunspot Activity through September highlighted in Yellow

The trend for 2012 is set. According to NOAA, September’s sunspot number was 61.5.  After a giant hiccup in solar activity late last year the sunspot number for 2012, so far, has settled down to only 59.5.

By international standard, the sunspot number is a measure of the average number of sunspots over time, usually a year. Monthly averages are also published during the year. That is what NOAA just reported. See 2012’s sunspot numbers highlight in yellow above.

Magnetic Field Trend Line

Its certainly possible sunspot activity could pick up. The sun is prone to wild fluctuations, but unlikely to go up much this time. The peak of sunspot activity this cycle has already passed for the sun’s northern hemisphere.

Even if 2013’s forecast high of 75 is reached it would still be among the lowest on record. It doesn’t look like even that will be reached.

The last sunspot cycle, cycle 23, had an unexpectedly long minimum extended nearly two years. Solar sunspot activity this cycle is half what it was last cycle.

The Great Solar Divide

Reporting on the Japanese Hinode mission to the sun, NASA says an asymmetry has developed between the sun’s northern and southern hemispheres.

During every solar cycle sunspot activity begins at its equator and advances toward the poles until it peaks at about 76º north and south. What is different about this cycle is the northern progression has already peaked and turned around. The south still has a ways to go before it peaks. Its flattening out solar maximum.

This flattening asymmetry is turning the world of solar physics upside down. The current model will have to change. Space weather forecasting, an infant science, is evolving rapidly.

As recently as August 2004, NASA’s David Hathaway forecast the current solar cycle would peak at 145 in 2010! Every time since then he (and others) have lowered the peak and pushed it further out. Hathaway’s current prediction is down to 75 that peaks in late 2013.

Its exciting! Hinode and other instruments are studying the current solar cycle, cycle 24, to a deeper level of detail than ever before. That promises to increase our understanding of solar physics and greatly advance the ability to predict the sun’s future behavior.

Trends in Solar Activity

Yellow highlight shows current solar cycle (24) near solar max as of October 2012

In 1700 the sun was just coming out of the longest period of sunspot inactivity known. It is called the Maunder Minimum. The Dalton Minimum followed closely on its heels. It lasted for two solar cycles in the early 1800s.

That was followed by the Modern Maximum that peaked the middle of last century. That maximum is among the highest periods of solar activity of the last 11,500 years going back to the last ice age.

Solar activity has been on the decline ever since.

Now solar physicists tell us to expect another minimum lasting more than one cycle.

Solar Activity and Climate Change

The Maunder and Dalton minimums share something in common. Both are associated with cold periods in Earth’s climate history. The time of the Maunder Minimum is often referred to as the “Little Ice Age“.

It is probably not entirely by chance that the Modern Maximum and another earlier period of high solar activity, the Medieval Warm Period, both correspond to warmer temperatures in Earth’s recent climate history.

In the satellite era it has been found the sun varies in radiant energy from 0.1% to 0.2% over a solar cycle. It is hottest during maximum solar activity. That could be a forcing mechanism driving historical climate change, just like the IPCC says CO2 is today.

It is unknown what the cooling effect of a prolonged period of inactivity might be. Physics cannot yet answer that question, but a long history of anecdotal empirical evidence suggests it does.


There is little doubt that human CO2 emissions have played a significant role in Earth’s current warm period. The Earth is about 1°C warmer than it was in 1880.

The IPCC has considered but rejected solar activity as a cause. The IPCC has rejected all possible causes of current global warming except AGW – Anthropogenic (human caused) Global Warming.

Times are a changin’! The impact of solar variation is becoming clearer.

The amount of irradiance change so far directly measured on the sun is insufficient to explain the global warming observed. But direct radiant energy variations have only been measurable since about 1975, a period covering three of the highest solar cycles ever seen.

It is completely unknown how much cooling happens during prolonged periods of inactivity like we are entering now. That has yet to be measured. The lesson of history teaches us there will be a noticeable effect.

Here is the $100 trillion question:
Will AGW or solar variation dominate climate change in the coming decades?

About azleader

Learning to see life more clearly... one image at a time!

Posted on Oct 11, 2012, in climate change, culture, economics, Life, news, Opinion, Politics, Sun, sunspot activity, sunspot report, sunspots, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. The unusual Solar Cycle #24 is setting us up with a great collection of data that promises to hold many scientific surprises. Remember man’s ignorance. Just 125 years ago we were clueless on what powered the sun. Some thought it was a big chunk of carbon burning!

  2. Reblogged this on Tallbloke's Talkshop and commented:
    This is an excellent introductory article on solar variation.

  3. The Sun reformed on the pulsar core of the supernova that

    1. Made our elements
    2. Gave birth to the Solar System 5 Gyr ago
    3. Sustained the evolution of life and Earth’s changing climate
    4. Extends outward as a domineering force >100 AU beyond planet Earth.
    See: Voyager approaches edge of Solar System.

    With kind regards
    Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

  4. The sun formed in a nebula, not around a pulsar.

  5. The answer to your expensive question is obvious, since AGW has no detectible influence. The apparent influence in the models is “stolen” from other variables:

    • Wow… thanks… that article led me off on a little journey of discovery.

      I’m unsure I agree that AGW has had no influence at all, but I’m more convinced than ever that solar variability is a major climate player based on Svensmark’s solar-magnetic warming theory supported by direct experiments performed by Svensmark and by CERN.

      That theory provides a fascinating physical mechanism for lower troposphere cloud formation driven by cosmic rays. They increase during low solar magnetic activity. That, of course, occurs during low sunspot activity.

      I’d never heard of that before, but it adds an experimentally verified physical mechanism to solar variability that explains the cooling of the Maunder and Dalton minimums and warming of the Modern Maximum and Medieval Warm Period.

  6. “There is little doubt human CO2 emissions have contributed to warming…” You can’t be serious. The ipcc technical reports verify that CO2 global warming potential at “1” is the lowest of all atmospheric trace gases. Trace gases altogether only constitute 1 percent of our atmosphere. CO2 constitutes an infinitesimal 4 one-hundreds of that 1 percent. The authors statement is completely unsupported by ipcc technical reports and by simply, straight forward logic.

    • Climate is at the mercy of many forcing mechanisms and carbon sinks whose direct effects are small compared to their indirect effects. It is true of both solar variability and CO2.

      • And forcing mechanisms are subject to counter-forces and negative feedback loops that tend to mitigate or suppress their effects. In CO2’s case, said forces and loops are immensely more potent and have immensely wider range of action than CO2 can ever dream of.


      • Yup, negative feedback loops play a HUGE role as well which mitigate the effects of one thing or another. They all interact and blend in dizzying complexity. Climate is a very convoluted science.

        That is probably why most AGW climate models lack significant predictive value… either forward or backward.

  7. Another theory here w/o O Manuel’s credentials.

    When our sun brightened up is quite possibly when Sol novaed. This collapse was controlled as I propose our solar system is inside a shell–the Oort shell — of magnetism that prevented the gases from expanding past our system. The collapse under strong magnetism disordered the planets but did not destroy most of them. The gases were pulled back over the magnetic collapsed star becoming a thin gas layer of light magnetism over the heavy magnetic inner body. The ‘dust’ from this creation has been ordered as planetary rings.
    In searching for similar ‘shells’ I find that the LMC & the SMC have areas of strongly pure gas for star creation and do indeed have ‘shells’ of stars, Inside the Trantula is several stars that defy the limit for creation as per science. I suggest this and the ‘shells’ are due to the pure gas not yet dirtied from star creation.
    I suggest this pure gas is due to the collapse of the central electromagnetic pressure trap, a LT starbody. Abandoned by the electricity to hold the pressure in, the LT collapses spewing pure gas. The collapse blew all of the ‘dust’ outside these small systems and allowed the gas held under pressure to flood the system. This pure gas allowed a rarity -a rebirth of a star nursery. Another rarity is the existing stars adding to their girth with the additional gas, hence the outsize stars.

    In seeking reasons for the sensitivity of our Sol in its finely tuned weather displays, one connects the excessively magnetic under layer to the magnetic bodies of the system; and its isolation from cosmic events excepting light.
    It would be hard otherwise to conjecture Sol being so sensitive in a cosmic weather stream in the exposed universe.

    • If I may be so bold to suggest, but gravity – the weakest of all forces – is what pulled together and holds together our solar system.

      Simple angular momentum developed because of slight inhomogeneities within our great primordial cloud. Be the momentum imparted by internal or external influences makes no matter, they contributed to the formation of the spinning planets and other phenomena as we know them today.

      Electromagnetic and the subatomic forces of star ignition play a vital roll, of course, but are subservient to gravity in the macro world in which we live. Its just physics.

      The greatest discovery about our sun of my lifetime is the realization that the sun is a slightly variable star, and far more active and dynamic than previous believed.

      The “solar constant” is not constant and that has long-term influence over Earth climate.

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