Sunspots 2014: Has solar maximum finally been reached?

Sunspots 2014: Has solar maximum finally been reached?

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NASA/SDO: On 5/15/2014 a solar coronal 'grand canyon' was observed

AUSTIN, June 3, 2014 – Chances are good that 75.4 will be the official solar maximum for sun cycle 24.

Another month, another sunspot record. For the fourth month in a row a solar maximum record high was set while, remarkably, May was the third month in a row that the monthly sunspot number dropped.

This is likely the last month for record highs.

SILSO data, Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels: New solar maximum set in May
SILSO data, Royal Observatory of Belgium, Brussels: New solar maximum set in May

On June 1, The Royal Observatory of Belgium released the official sunspot number for May. It is 75.2 spots/day.

It is puzzling to think that new record highs keep getting set while the monthly sunspot number keeps falling.

The reason is solar maximum is a 13-month smoothed average calculation, so it trails the monthly sunspot count by six months. The new records reflect what happened over the last year when the sun was more active. It is displayed as the blue “smoothed values” curve shown above.

The new sunspot peak rose modestly from 75.0 to 75.4 while the monthly sunspot average fell another nine spots from the previous month. May averaged 25 percent fewer spots/day than in February.

The new peak is right at physicist Leif Svalgaard’s 2004 prediction, though arriving years later than expected.

The end is near?

The sun is showing signs, this time, that it really is starting to drift down toward solar minimum.

Northern hemisphere magnetic flux switched polarity two years ago. That marked the north’s half way point. It’s sunspot counts last month dropped back near last year’s low levels. Southern hemisphere polarity switched last summer and its high water mark for second half activity appears to have been in February.

The sun is full of surprises, though, so you never know for sure what’s going to happen next.

Near-miss Carrington Event?

Wikipedia: Solar flare of August 31, 2012
Wikipedia: Solar flare of August 31, 2012

A Carrington Event (CE) is just about the scariest global-scale disaster facing today’s computer-driven, electronics-dependent world. Earthlings are totally unprepared for it.

New data that became public knowledge last month shows that we missed experiencing a global catastrophe by just one week in 2012. It came out at a gathering of scientists, government officials and emergency planners in Boulder, Colorado at a NOAA Space Weather Workshop.

A CE is a supersized solar flare. It’s named for Richard Carrington who witnessed the first mega-flare back in 1859 while doing his daily sunspot count. That event brought down the world’s telegraph system, the Internet of its time.

It might have been stronger than the Carrington Event itself… If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces.
-Professor Daniel N. Baker, University of Boulder

If it were to occur today, a CE would bring down electric power grids planet wide. Potentially, 100s of millions of electronic devices from personal computers, to cell phones, to GPS tracking, to aircraft controls, to the global financial systems could be permanently damaged. It would take years to repair.

Should a CE happen, there will only be about half a day’s warning to take cover.

A CE happened in 1859. There was a near-miss in 2012. Educated guessing suggests that the next one will strike within the next 200 years. Will earth be prepared?

Corrections to the 400-year sunspot record

The 4th and final Sunspot Number Workshop was held in Lacarno, Switzerland May 19-23.

This all-important conference among solar physicists was to finalize decisions on how the 400-year sunspot record is to be fixed. Counting errors have accumulated over the centuries. It’s a big deal.

It was hoped their findings would be summarized in a press release at the conclusion of the meetings. But, so far, they’ve been quieter than a church pulpit at midnight on a Saturday night.


Indications are that the latest sunspot record set last month will be the last for this cycle. Monthly sunspot averages have fallen rapidly for the last three months.

However, the sun is fickle. Just a year ago it looked like the current cycle was done for and was fading ignominiously toward solar minimum. Then the sun came roaring back to life in October to generate one of the largest secondary peaks in the entire 400-year recorded history of sunspot activity.

Now, though, it looks like the sun may be headed toward solar minimum again, this time for real. Late cycle indicators are breaking out all over the place.

The good news is, as we slip toward solar minimum, it reduces the chances for another Carrington Event until next solar max.

Perhaps, by this time next month, the 32 closed-mouthed attendees at the Lacarno sunspot workshop will end their silence. Many wait with baited breath for their final results.

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