by Robert Wilkinson
It seems that the Sun is unusually calm these days. That's not necessarily a good thing, since the last time it was this calm World War I broke out soon thereafter. If you want to read some fascinating speculation about the Sun, Sunspots, and the like, let's take a short trip down Science Lane just off of Fate Street.
Courtesy of the WaPo, "Absence of sunspots make scientists wonder if they're seeing a calm before a storm of energy." The WaPo states the article is adapted from one originally published by astrophysicist Stuart Clark in New Scientist,
This may be extraordinarily important since when the Sun decides to flame on and off, our world is affected in major ways. By all means check out the story, but for those with a short attention span who want to cut to the chase, here are a few nuggets from the article:
Sunspots come and go, but recently they have mostly gone. For centuries, astronomers have recorded when these dark blemishes on the solar surface emerge, only to fade away after a few days, weeks or months. Thanks to their efforts, we know that sunspot numbers ebb and flow in cycles lasting about 11 years.
But for the past two years, the sunspots have mostly been missing. Their absence, the most prolonged in nearly 100 years, has taken even seasoned sun watchers by surprise.... other clues indicate that the sun's magnetic activity is diminishing and that the sun may even be shrinking. Together, the results hint that something profound is happening inside the sun.
Groups of sunspots forewarn of gigantic solar storms that can unleash a billion times more energy than an atomic bomb. Fears that these giant eruptions could create havoc on Earth and disputes over the sun's role in climate change are adding urgency to these studies...
Sunspots are windows into the sun's magnetic soul. They form where giant loops of magnetism, generated deep inside the sun, well up and burst through the surface, leading to a localized drop in temperature that we see as a dark patch. Any changes in sunspot numbers reflect changes inside the sun... When sunspot numbers drop at the end of each 11-year cycle, solar storms die down and all becomes much calmer. This "solar minimum" doesn't last long. Within a year, the spots and storms begin to build toward a new crescendo, the next solar maximum.
So it seems that Sunspot cycles have some correlation with Jupiter, which takes about 11 years to transit the zodiac. It seems that the Sun most recently "calmed" in 2007 and so few Sunspots were expected in 2008. Scientists thought when they returned there would be more of them, as well as more Solar storms and energy sent out into space. However, since then there has been an "extreme dip" in Sunspots, and we are told "Only the minimum of 1913 was more pronounced, with 85 percent of that year clear."
There wasn't much Solar action in 2009 either. Then in December 2009, "the largest group of sunspots to emerge in several years appeared. Even with the solar cycle finally underway again, the number of sunspots has so far been well below expectations. Something appears to have changed inside the sun, something the models did not predict."
Without going into obscure details of how the process works, we are told there are two "vast conveyor belts of gas that endlessly cycle material and magnetism through the sun's interior and out across its surface. On average it takes 40 years for the conveyor belts to complete a circuit." It seems the surface flows have been speeding up since 2004, but the internal ones have significantly slowed. This is confounding computer models and scientists who don't really know what's happening.
The Earth responds to these fluctuations in many ways. One professor of space environment physics believe the unusually cold European winter of 2009-10 is the result of the strange Solar activity. From the article:
... severe European winters are much more likely during periods of low solar activity. This fits an idea of solar activity's giving rise to small changes in the global climate overall but large regional effects.... Another example is the so-called Maunder minimum, the period from 1645 to 1715 during which sunspots virtually disappeared and solar activity plummeted. If a similar spell of solar inactivity were to begin now and continue until 2100, it would mitigate any temperature rise caused by global warming by no more than 0.3 degrees Celsius...
However, something amplified the impact of the Maunder minimum on northern Europe, ushering in a period known as the Little Ice Age, when colder-than-average winters became more prevalent and the average temperature in Europe appeared to drop by between 1 and 2 degrees Celsius.
A corresponding increase in temperatures on Earth appears to be associated with peaks in solar output. In 2008, Judith Lean of the Naval Research Laboratory's space science division published a study showing that high solar activity has a disproportionate warming influence on northern Europe.
What the sun will do next is beyond our ability to predict. Most astronomers think that the solar cycle will proceed but at significantly depressed levels of activity, similar to those last seen in the 19th century. However, there is also evidence that the sun is inexorably losing its ability to produce sunspots. By 2015, they could be gone altogether, plunging us into a new Maunder minimum -- and perhaps a new Little Ice Age.
Anyway, "we know something's happening here but we don't know what it is," to paraphrase the 20th century American Bard. While I suspect we stand on the threshold of something far better than anything we've known before, there are times when our larger environment compels us humans to take note and correct whatever we can correct, while adapting to what we can't. The months to come would seem to be one of those times.
For those who are interested in more commentary on our Earth, Sun, and Solar System, you can find more on Stuart Clark's blog, Stuart Clark's Universe.
And the beat goes on and on and on....
© Copyright 2010 Robert Wilkinson