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By Joe D'Aleo
Tuesday, August 24, 2009

The sun through Mid August continues to surprise is its Sleeping Beauty mode.

Three dozen straight days without a sunspot, 178 for the year to date, 78% of the days. 2009 with 4 and ½ months to go, already was rising through the top twenty spotless years since 1850 and should rival 2008 with its 265 spotless days for a top 5 position. The only other three year stretch that made the top twenty was the 1911, 1912, 1913 period.

The 13 month average sunspot number rose slightly from December to January leaving most to conclude December 2008 was the solar minimum but if the sun stays very quiet this month and next it is not impossible we will have a double bottom and maybe a slightly lower value, making the cycle longer still. Already cycle 23 was the longest in at least 150 years.  

Most of the recent cycles were well on their way to the next maxima or in 1 case at the solar maxim by this time after the prior minima. Given where we are in August, we have to lean towards the lower of the two dashed curves for possible calendar year 13 track with an average SSN well below 10.

This is fitting the scenario depicted by Clilverd et al (2007) who used a statistical regression techniques with the various solar cycles (11,22, 53, 88, 106, 213, 426 years) to reconstruct the past and forecast the future. He sees a solar maxima of 40. 

NASA led solar forecast team has been gradually moving that direction with a consensus projection now of 90 and a delayed maximum in 2013. Earlier they had a split decision with a maximum of 140 in 2011 or 90 in 2012.  This is their current forecast.

I suspect that will come down further more in agreement with Clilverd.


That does not preclude a major solar storm. In 1859, in a relatively minor solar cycle (peak around 90 SSN), one of the worst solar storms occurred.

In scientific circles where solar flares, magnetic storms and other unique solar events are discussed, the occurrences of September 1-2, 1859, are the star stuff of legend. Even 144 years ago, many of Earth's inhabitants realized something momentous had just occurred. Within hours, telegraph wires in both the United States and Europe spontaneously shorted out, causing numerous fires, while the Northern Lights, solar-induced phenomena more closely associated with regions near Earth's North Pole, were documented as far south as Rome, Havana and Hawaii, with similar effects at the South Pole.

What happened in 1859 was a combination of several events that occurred on the Sun at the same time. If they took place separately they would be somewhat notable events. But together they caused the most potent disruption of Earth's ionosphere in recorded history. "What they generated was the perfect space storm," says Bruce Tsurutani, a plasma physicist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Alan Roth noted in a post here “Grid security managers are experiencing growing concern over cyber security while another serious threat, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), has received very little attention. An electromagnetic pulse attack can have a devastating impact on the grid, rendering it useless perhaps for many years. While it is generally considered a low frequency/high consequence threat, recent developments regarding both human-caused EMP and the likelihood of geomagnetic storms significantly increase the chances of a major hit. Protective activity needs to be jump-started if appropriate measures are to be in place before it's too late”.

He adds: “a major solar storm can wreak havoc on our grids. An example is the severe space weather event that hit the Hydro-Quebec power system in Canada in March, 1989. Automatic voltage compensation equipment failed, resulting in a voltage collapse. Five transmission lines from James Bay were tripped, causing a generation loss of 9,450 MW. With a load of about 21,350 MW, the system collapsed within seconds resulting in a nine-hour blackout for the Province of Quebec. During this same storm, a large step-up transformer failed at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant in New Jersey. There were about 200 less severe events reported in the North American power system.

The online Operations Manual of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) cites geomagnetic storms of 1957, 1958, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1974, 1979, 1982, and 1989 as causes of major power system disturbances. However, "major" is a comparative term and may be inappropriate for those storms considering the destructive capability of the storms of 1859 and 1921. The former is the strongest ever recorded but the weaker 1921 storm was many times stronger than those cited by NERC. If a storm of that intensity were to occur during the increasing solar activity of the next few years, it would destroy most of the power equipment on our grids.

A National Research Council-sponsored workshop on the societal and economic impact of an EMP hit on our grids was held in February, 2008. It concluded that the consequences of a major storm would be catastrophic, dwarfing the damage from Hurricane Katrina and lasting 4 to 10 years. If we don't take steps to mitigate the impact, civilization as we know it would be destroyed. You can just imagine the consequences of instantly having no electricity across the nation for as long as 10 years.”

I received this email from Dr. Richard Mackey of Australia, a solar expert. I thought you might find his comments and insight interesting.

Astronomer Emeritus Dr. William Livingston and Associate Astronomer Dr Matthew Penn have for many years been measuring the magnetic field strength of the Sun’s magnetic fields. See for example this post.

WUWT in June this year published
a report by them concluding that, broadly speaking, over the last 15 years the magnetic field strengths of sunspots were decreasing with time independently of the sunspot cycle.  A simple linear extrapolation of the magnetic data collected by their special observatory (the McMath-Pierce telescope) suggests that sunspots might largely vanish in five years time.  In addition, other scientists report that the solar wind (a large proportion of the Sun’s output of matter in the plasma form) is in a lower energy state than found since space measurements began nearly 40 years ago.

In answer to the question: Why is a lack of sunspot activity interesting?, Livingston and Penn answer:

“During a period from 1645 to 1715 the Sun entered an extended period of low activity known as the Maunder Minimum.  For a time equivalent to several sunspot cycles the Sun displayed few sunspots.  Models of the Sun’s irradiance suggest that the solar energy input to the Earth decreased during that epoch, and that this lull in solar activity may explain the low temperatures recorded in Europe during the Little Ice Age”.

EOS is the professional publication of the American Geophysical Union.  It is a broadsheet sent every week to AGU members.  It always has one feature article, but mainly lists job advertisements and notices about conferences, seminars and the like of interest to AGU members and news of members’ achievements.  The feature articles are sometimes about climate change, which are generally supportive of the IPCC dogma.

In EOS of 28 July 2009 there is a very well written feature length article by Livingston and Penn entitled, "Are Sunspots Different During This Sunspot Minimum?" Livingston and Penn answer yes.

Their central finding is that regardless of the relation to the sunspot cycles, magnetic intensity in sunspots is decreasing and if this continues in the same way as it has for the last 15 years, the Sun will be devoid of sunspots in five years time: overall the Sun’s energetic output will decline significantly inducing another little ice age on the Earth.

In a
press release dated June 17, 2009 the National Solar Observatory reported:

"Drs. Rachel Howe and Frank Hill, both of the NSO, used long-term observations from the NSO's Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG) facility to detect and track an
east-to-west jet stream, known as the "torsional oscillation", at depths of ~1,000 to 7,000 km below the surface of the Sun. The Sun generates new jet streams near its poles every 11 years; the streams migrate slowly, over a period of 17 years, to the equator, and are associated with the production of sunspots once they reach a critical latitude of 22 degrees.

Howe and Hill found that the stream associated with the new solar cycle has moved sluggishly, taking three years to cover a 10 degree range in latitude compared to two years for the last solar cycle, but has now reached the critical latitude. The current solar minimum has become so long and deep, some scientists have speculated the Sun might enter a long period with no sunspot activity at all. The new result both shows that the Sun's internal magnetic dynamo continues to operate, and heralds the beginning of a new cycle of solar activity.

"It is exciting to see", said Dr. Hill, "that just as this sluggish stream reaches the usual active latitude of 22 degrees, a year late, we finally begin to see new groups of sunspots emerging at the new active latitude." Since the current minimum is now one year longer than usual, Howe and Hill conclude that the extended solar minimum phase may have resulted from the slower migration of the flow. GONG and its sister instrument SOHO/MDI measure sound waves on the surface of the Sun. Scientists can then use the sound waves to probe structures deep in the interior of the star, in a process analogous to a sonogram in a medical office. "Using the global sound wave inversions, we have been able to reveal the intimate connection between subtle changes in the Sun's interior and the sunspot cycle on its surface," said Hill.

"This is an important piece of the solar activity puzzle," said Dr. Dean Pesnell, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "It shows how flows inside the Sun are related to the creation of solar activity and how the timing of the solar cycle might be produced. None of the forecasting research groups predicted the current long extended delay in the new cycle. There is a lot more to learn in order to understand how the Sun creates magnetic fields."

Livingston and Penn conclude their EOS article with these comments: “Whether this [decline] is an omen of long-term sunspot decline, analogous to the Maunder Minimum, remains to be seen.  Other indications of the solar activity cycle suggest that sunspots must return in earnest next year. Because other indications point to the Sun experiencing an unusual period of minimum solar activity, it is critically important to measure the Sun’s magnetic activity during this unique time.” 


Another interesting aspect of Livingston and Penn’s EOS article is that the AGU published it in its professional publication.  This suggests to me that the professional societies are returning to practice of true scientific debate that has been suppressed for so long. It is worth recalling the feature article “Natural antidote to global warming” written by Sir John Maddox, then the editor of Nature and published in Nature on 21 September 1995.

Sir John referred to the extensive research published up to 1995 indicating the Sun-climate relationship and that the Sun was likely to enter into a Maunder Minimum inducing state sometime during the first few decades of the new millennium.

Sir John, an enthusiastic apostle of the IPCC dogma, asked: “There remains the question of whether the Maunder Minimum will arrive in time to avoid a global carbon tax?” He answered that on the basis of his reading of the evidence published up till then there was only a small chance.  However, he concluded by noting that it is a real possibility and that the moral of his commentary was “a better understanding of the Sun might now have practical value.”

Livingston and Penn and a large number of solar physicists (see, for example, the home page of the grandfather of modern solar physics,
Professor Emeritus Cornelius de Jager, here would say that now the likelihood of the Earth being seized by Maunder Minimum is now greater that the Earth being seized by a period of global warming.

They would answer Sir John’s question by saying: “Yes, the Maunder Minimum will arrive in time to save the planet from the utterly foolish global carbon tax.”


Richard Mackey


In any event, the next few years will be of great interest to see what happens with the sun and if it is indeed a dud few cycles, the climate. Will it refute the IPCC claims that the sun is not an important climate driver in modern times.