SALEM, Ore., February 1, 2014 — Promptly on the first day of each month, the Royal Observatory of Belgium releases the official monthly sunspot number. It is a big deal. By international agreement, Belgium is the official keeper of science’s longest continuously monitored dataset: the 400-year solar sunspot cycle. Reported today, January’s number is 82.
The monthly sunspot number is the average number of sunspots visible each day during the previous month. About 60 designated observers worldwide do daily counts and their tallies are combined, averaged and reported by Belgium through their Solar Influences Data Center (SIDC).
The sun, the source of all heat and light on earth, is undergoing profound changes. Sunspots are literally fading away. With each passing year they are fewer in number and the ones we still see have weaker magnetic fields and are not as “black” as in past years.
No one knows why. The sun’s disturbing transformation has been underway for the last three sunspot cycles.
At present, we are at maximum solar sunspot activity for the current cycle. It is among the weakest sunspot maximums on record. You have to go back 100 years to 1907 to find another sunspot peak as weak as this one.
In the early 1800s there was a lull in solar sunspot activity lasting two cycles. It was slightly lower than where we are now and corresponded to cooler temperatures in the northern hemisphere. It is called the Dalton Minimum.
Solar physicists believe the next solar cycle after this one will be the weakest yet, much weaker than the Dalton Minimum.
The first official prediction for the next sunspot maximum, around 2023, is for only seven sunspots. That would make it the weakest solar cycle in 400 years. If that happens — and all early data indicate it will — cycle 25 will barely register on the above chart.
The last time something like this happened was between 1645 and 1715, when the sun had practically no sunspots at all. Solar physicists call that time the Maunder Minimum. There were so few spots that even though they have been catalogued since Galileo started the practice in 1609, the 11-year sunspot cycle was not discovered until the mid-1700s after sunspots returned.
It is well known that the Maunder Minimum corresponds with the midpoint of what has been dubbed “The Little Ice Age,” a time when Europe and North America experienced very cold winters.
As data has been collected and theories revised during the current solar cycle progression, whispers in academic hallways among the world’s top solar physicists are now finding their way into scientific papers and into the popular press.
The big question: Are we drifting into another Maunder Minimum? And, if so, how will it affect climate change?
Placing sensitive instruments in orbit above earth’s atmosphere has allowed scientists, for the first time, to very accurately measure timeline changes in the energy output of the sun. Over the last three cycles, going back to 1978, it has been found that the sun varies in energy output by about ±0.1 percent during the sunspot cycle. It is hottest during solar maximum and coldest during solar minimum.
The IPCC accurately points out that the measured change in solar energy output alone is not enough to account for observed global warming. What the IPCC does not say is that the increase in atmospheric CO2 alone cannot account for global warming either.
The IPCC explains global warming as the result of a series of “forcings” that magnifies the tiny amount of direct greenhouse warming caused by the observed increase of CO2.
Whereas it includes obscure CO2 forcings in its models, the IPCC dismisses solar forcings that magnify the sun’s effect on earth’s climate.
Beyond direct warming or cooling, which is not very much, prolonged periods of low sunspot activity allow more cosmic rays to reach earth’s upper atmosphere. Controlled experiments prove that increases in cosmic rays trigger upper atmosphere cloud formation. That acts as a magnified cooling “forcing” that occurs during prolonged periods of sunspot inactivity.
It is not proven that unshielded cosmic rays will trigger enough cloud formation to cool earth. It is known that IPCC climate models do not account for it and they consistently predict temperature increases that are about 65 percent higher than observed. The models are off by a country mile.
Earth’s temperature has not increased at all this century even though CO2 has increased linearly by about 22 percent. According to IPCC modeling, there should have been between a +0.2 and +0.3°C temperature rise since 1998. Something is wrong.
There is no proof positive that a prolonged period of solar calm is about to occur. There is not proof that the cold periods during the Maunder and Dalton minimums were caused by solar sunspot inactivity.
One thing is certain, though; over the next couple decades we will find out.