Deep Solar Minimum

Right on time the sunspot cycle is establishing minima. This time it appears to be as deep as last seen in 1913. Otherwise it is essentially good news as business as usual. A number of commentators have made contrarian predictions, but I see no reason to do that. Present evidence supports a rapid rise starting this year culminating in a peak three years hence on schedule. There is no reason to read anything whatsoever into present evidence.

We have seen the first few cycle 24 sunspots, and we can expect that come Christmas we will be seeing plenty more.

A number of commentators have pushed hard to police up the link between this cycle and global temperatures. My sense is that the link is real enough but been one of those factors whose effect is almost within the error range, it is devilishly difficult to separate. The fact that we seem to have decadal cycles in global climatic conditions is very suggestive but a little like trying to measure variable input heat flux in a pot by observing the boiling porridge. And yes, we are the boiling porridge.

The new news is simply that this minima is deeper than any recorded since the minima recorded in 1913. This means that we can compare the weather of the 1913 to 1924 with the weather of the next eleven years and properly determine comparability to perhaps winkle out specific variables not possible or convincing otherwise.

It is a decadal program but it should allow us to propose testable variables and outputs to test against all other sunspot cycles.

Deep Solar Minimum


April 1, 2009: The sunspot cycle is behaving a little like the stock market. Just when you think it has hit bottom, it goes even lower.

2008 was a bear. There were no sunspots observed on 266 of the year's 366 days (73%). To find a year with more blank suns, you have to go all the way back to 1913, which had 311 spotless days:
plot. Prompted by these numbers, some observers suggested that the solar cycle had hit bottom in 2008.

Maybe not. Sunspot counts for 2009 have dropped even lower. As of March 31st, there were no sunspots on 78 of the year's 90 days (87%).
It adds up to one inescapable conclusion: "We're experiencing a very deep solar minimum," says solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

"This is the quietest sun we've seen in almost a century," agrees sunspot expert David Hathaway of the Marshall Space Flight Center.

Above: The sunspot cycle from 1995 to the present. The jagged curve traces actual sunspot counts. Smooth curves are fits to the data and one forecaster's predictions of future activity. Credit: David Hathaway, NASA/MSFC.

Quiet suns come along every 11 years or so. It's a natural part of the sunspot cycle, discovered by German astronomer Heinrich Schwabe in the mid-1800s. Sunspots are planet-sized islands of magnetism on the surface of the sun; they are sources of solar flares, coronal mass ejections and intense UV radiation. Plotting sunspot counts, Schwabe saw that peaks of solar activity were always followed by valleys of relative calm—a clockwork pattern that has held true for more than 200 years:

The current solar minimum is part of that pattern. In fact, it's right on time. "We're due for a bit of quiet—and here it is," says Pesnell.

But is it supposed to be this quiet? In 2008, the sun set the following records:

A 50-year low in solar wind pressure: Measurements by the Ulysses spacecraft reveal a 20% drop in solar wind pressure since the mid-1990s—the lowest point since such measurements began in the 1960s. The solar wind helps keep galactic cosmic rays out of the inner solar system. With the solar wind flagging, more cosmic rays are permitted to enter, resulting in increased health hazards for astronauts. Weaker solar wind also means fewer geomagnetic storms and auroras on Earth.

A 12-year low in solar "irradiance": Careful measurements by several NASA spacecraft show that the sun's brightness has dropped by 0.02% at visible wavelengths and a whopping 6% at extreme UV wavelengths since the solar minimum of 1996. These changes are not enough to reverse the course of global warming, but there are some other, noticeable side-effects: Earth's upper atmosphere is heated less by the sun and it is therefore less "puffed up." Satellites in low Earth orbit experience less atmospheric drag, extending their operational lifetimes. That's the good news. Unfortunately, space junk also remains longer in Earth orbit, increasing hazards to spacecraft and satellites.

Above: Space-age measurements of the total solar irradiance (brightness summed across all wavelengths). This plot, which comes from researcher C. Fröhlich, was shown by Dean Pesnell at the Fall 2008 AGU meeting during a lecture entitled "What is Solar Minimum and Why Should We Care?"

A 55-year low in solar radio emissions: After World War II, astronomers began keeping records of the sun's brightness at radio wavelengths. Records of 10.7 cm flux extend back all the way to the early 1950s. Radio telescopes are now recording the dimmest "radio sun" since 1955:
plot. Some researchers believe that the lessening of radio emissions is an indication of weakness in the sun's global magnetic field. No one is certain, however, because the source of these long-monitored radio emissions is not fully understood.

All these lows have sparked a debate about whether the ongoing minimum is "weird", "extreme" or just an overdue "market correction" following a string of unusually intense solar maxima.

"Since the Space Age began in the 1950s, solar activity has been generally high," notes Hathaway. "Five of the ten most intense solar cycles on record have occurred in the last 50 years. We're just not used to this kind of deep calm."

Deep calm was fairly common a hundred years ago. The solar minima of 1901 and 1913, for instance, were even longer than the one we're experiencing now. To match those minima in terms of depth and longevity, the current minimum will have to last at least another year.

In a way, the calm is exciting, says Pesnell. "For the first time in history, we're getting to see what a deep solar minimum is really like." A fleet of spacecraft including the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), the twin STEREO probes, the five THEMIS probes, ACE, Wind, TRACE, AIM, TIMED, Geotail and others are studying the sun and its effects on Earth 24/7 using technology that didn't exist 100 years ago. Their measurements of solar wind, cosmic rays, irradiance and magnetic fields show that solar minimum is much more interesting and profound than anyone expected.

Modern technology cannot, however, predict what comes next. Competing models by dozens of top solar physicists disagree, sometimes sharply, on when this solar minimum will end and how big the next solar maximum will be. Pesnell has surveyed the scientific literature and prepared a "
piano plot" showing the range of predictions. The great uncertainty stems from one simple fact: No one fully understands the underlying physics of the sunspot cycle.

Pesnell believes sunspot counts will pick up again soon, "possibly by the end of the year," to be followed by a solar maximum of below-average intensity in 2012 or 2013.

But like other forecasters, he knows he could be wrong. Bull or bear? Stay tuned for updates.

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