Declining Sunspots may trigger strong cooling period

Two Tucson solar scientists with the National Solar Observatory at Kitt Peak have been keeping track of sunspots. The steady decline in sunspots may foreshadow a period of strong global cooling. The last time sunspots behaved this way was from 1645 to 1715, a time known as the Maunder Minimum, and also “the little ice age.” Following is the press release from Physorg.com:

(PhysOrg.com) — Sunspot formation is triggered by a magnetic field, which scientists say is steadily declining. They predict that by 2016 there may be no remaining sunspots, and the sun may stay spotless for several decades. The last time the sunspots disappeared altogether was in the 17th and 18th century, and coincided with a lengthy cool period on the planet known as the Little Ice Age.

Sunspots are regions of electrically charged, superheated gas (plasma) on the surface of the sun, formed when upwellings of the magnetic field trap the ionized plasma. The magnetic field prevents the gas from releasing the heat and sinking back below the sun’s surface. These areas are somewhat cooler than the surrounding sun surface and so appear to us as dark spots.

Sunspots have been observed at least since the early 17th century, and they are known to follow an 11 year cycle from solar maximum to solar minimum. The solar minimum usually lasts around 16 months, but the current minimum has already lasted 26 months, which is the longest minimum in a hundred years.

Since 1990, Matthew Penn and William Livingston, solar astronomers with the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Tucson, Arizona, have been using a measurement known as Zeeman splitting to study the magnetic strength of sunspots. The Zeeman splitting is the distance between a pair of infrared spectral lines in a spectrograph taken of the light emitted by iron atoms in the atmosphere of the sun. The wider the distance, the greater is the intensity of the magnetic field.

Penn and Livingston examined 1500 sunspots and found that the average strength of the magnetic field of the sunspots has dropped from around 2700 gauss to 2000 gauss. (In comparison, the Earth’s magnetic field is below one gauss.) The reasons for the decline are unknown, but Livingston said that if the strength continues to decrease at the same rate it will drop to 1500 gauss by 2016, and below this strength the formation of sunspots appears to be impossible.

During the period from 1645 to 1715, a time known as the Maunder Minimum, there were almost no sunspots. This period coincided with the Little Ice Age, which produced lower than average temperatures in Europe. Livingston said their results should be treated with caution as their techniques are relatively new and it is not yet known if the decline in magnetic field strength will continue, and that “only the passage of time will tell whether the solar cycle will pick up.”

David Hathaway, a solar physicist with the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, also cautioned the calculations do not take into account that many small sunspots with relatively weak magnetic fields appeared during the last solar maximum, and if these are not included in the calculations the average magnetic field strength would seem higher than it actually was.

Penn and Livingston’s paper has been submitted to the online colloquium, International Astronomical Union Symposium No. 273.

Maybe, instead of trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we should follow my modest proposal to triple our carbon footprints.

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7 comments

  1. This was certainly true until early 2010.  From winter 2008 – early 2010, the solar minium was abnormally long.  Below is a link that will substantiate that sunspots have returned.  We have seen many class C flares and a few class B flares this summer. We’ve seeen sunspot that have split into two separate sunspots(not common), We have seen strings of sunspots, instead of isolated sunspots. The Earth as been a accosted by numerous CME this summer evidenced by the high number of aurora’s this summer.  This is Misinformation.  It bothers me that people will believe you. You go ahead and commit planetary suicide. You’ll own it. http://www.astrophysics.com/index.html Spotless Days
    Current Stretch: 0 days
    2010 total: 41 days (16%)
    2009 total: 260 days (71%)
    Since 2004: 809 days
    Typical Solar Min: 486 days
    explanation | more info
    Updated 14 Sep 2010 

  2. Pesqueira: Part of the problem in numbers of sunspots is what is counted. Spaceweather.com, the site you referred to, recently started to use better imagery of the sun. Some accuse them of counting “sunpecks,” which had not previously been visible, as sunspots, thereby inflating the count compared to historical tallies. See http://tinyurl.com/27kj95x
    I don’t know what fish kills have to do with sunspots. The story you referred to says the cause is unknown, but they suspect that the oil-eating bacteria could have used up more oxygen than usual. The story also speculates that there has been increased nitrogen from fertilizers washed into the gulf. That also uses up oxygen. By the way, the increased use of fertilizers is a result of increased corn production to produce ethanol.

  3. CME’s have been erupting all summer, Class B and Class C eruptions.  Your readers will need to decide for themselves what website is more reputable tinyurl.com or astrophysics.com.

    When you recommend tripling your carbon emmission footprint, oil being the largest contributor,  it becomes appropiate to mention the Gulf spill.  What you clearly failed to cherrypick from the article is that this “stretch of coastal Louisiana hit hard this summer by oil from BP’s busted Gulf well.”  You also fail to mention that the influx(increase) of oil eating-microbes was due to microbe gourging on the oil particles created by the chemical dispersants.  The last two sentences of the article have been included for clarity. When I directed your readers to this site for them to decide, I didnot cherrypick.

     “Many scientists have feared that an influx of oil-eating microbes would lead to more Gulf Coast dead zones, since the microbes use large amounts of oxygen when they consume the oil particles produced by chemical dispersants.”

  4. Sunspot activity has been declining for over 50 years. See: http://solar-center.stanford.edu/sun-on-earth/glob-warm.html (Note the Stanford University URL)The sharp warming in the earth’s temperature over the last several decades is following the increase in the atmospheric carbon dioxide content. The warming trend is not following sunspot activity.“Global warming . . . is now well documented and accepted by scientists as fact.” Total solar irradiance is the lowest in 35 years. See http://theenergycollective.com/TheEnergyCollective/55125 “Our results show that the observed rapid rise in global mean temperatures seen after 1985 cannot be ascribed to solar variability, whichever of the mechanisms is invoked and no matter how much the solar variation is amplified.”http://www.pubs.royalsoc.ac.uk/media/proceedings_a/rspa20071880.pdf The 12 month period through Aug. 2010 has been the warmest 12 months in recorded history. The previous record was the 12 month period ending Dec. 2005. Data at http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata/GLB.Ts+dSST.txtGraph at: http://www.durangobill.com/SwindlePics/SwindleGISS.gifHow long are we suppose to wait for the hypothesized solar “global cooling”?  

  5. PS  “Some accuse them of counting “sunpecks,”  Who are the “some” and what are their credential?  Tiny University?

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