The Sun Has An Anti-Climax

The solar disk on May 11th: Is it? Are they? Not quite (SOHO)
The solar disk on May 11th: Is it? Are they? Not quite (SOHO)

Some recent solar articles are freaking out, proclaiming that the Sun is waiting to unleash it’s fury on the Earth (re: Warning: Sunspot cycle beginning to rise) or that it’s lowering its energy output, possibly kickstarting Maunder Minimum 2.0 (re: New Forecast Calls for Calmer Sun).

So which one is it? Is the Sun just biding its time, waiting for the perfect moment to fire a salvo of flares at us? Or will it remain quiet, well into Solar Cycle 24, impacting our planet like the Maunder Minimum did during the Little Ice Age from the 16th-19th century?

It’s funny actually, both the above articles are based on the same research, and yet two very different conclusions were drawn from the text.

On the one hand, the Sun is acting rather strange; it’s undergoing a sustained solar minimum, the longest period of low sunspot population for the best part of a century. On the other hand, when the Sun does get active, steadily growing to a peak in activity for the 2012-2013 predicted solar maximum, the resulting flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) could inflict $2 trillion in damages on global infrastructure (according to a recent study), leaving us to mop up the mess for a decade. It’s these two extremes that are causing such a stir, generating the attention-grabbing headlines.

However, I seriously doubt that we are facing another Little Ice Age and I am highly skeptical of the predictions that the 11 years of Cycle 24 are going to be overly violent. To be honest, we just don’t know. Considering we live so close to the Sun, we actually know very little about it; to even begin trying to predict what it’s going to do next remains problematic.

That said, once the Sun starts producing lost of sunspots, this means magnetic activity is on the rise and solar activity is increasing, so when I see sunspots rotate into view, I can’t help but be a little excited. Today, it happened, two active regions appeared on the disk of the Sun. Could this be the real start to the solar cycle?

mag163

Today’s image is a magnetic map of the sun. Two active regions are circled. Their polarity identifies them as members of new Solar Cycle 24, but they lack the dark cores required of true sunspots. So, in spite of these lively magnetic imprints, we must still say “the sun is blank–no sunspots.”SpaceWeather.com

No sunspots, another blank disk day and therefore low magnetic activity still.

How dull.

Our (Painfully) Featureless Sun

The Sun, being boring on Jan. 13th 2009, a whole year after Solar Cycle 24 was supposed to start (solar astrophotography by ©Stephen Sykes)
The Sun, being boring on Jan. 13th 2009, a whole year after Solar Cycle 24 was supposed to start (solar astrophotography by ©Stephen Sykes)

This morning I realised it’s been a whole year since we saw the first reversed polarity sunspot pair on the surface of the Sun. A year ago, Solar Cycle 23 was running out of steam and Cycle 24 was about to take over. Solar physicists the world over were making predictions, some thought Cycle 24 was going to be a “doozy”, others were a little more conservative, saying it might just be an “average” cycle. However, 12 months on, it would appear Cycle 24 is off to a very lazy start. Once again, we have a “blank” Sun, a perfect sphere, looking like a marble, or as my wife observed: a jawbreaker (or as us Brits like to expressively call them, gobstoppers).

The stunning image above was shot by skilled astrophotographer Stephen Sykes, over at AstroSlacker.com, demonstrating what superb views of the Sun can be captured by amateur astronomers. When I (eventually) get my telescope, and/or a new camera, the Sun will be my first astronomical object to observe, but I doubt I’ll get as good a view as this.

So, another day, another featureless Sun. That’s not to say it’s been a totally boring year; we’ve had flares from “left over” active regions from Cycle 23 and we’ve had a bit of action from Cycle 24 (the most recent set of spots–Sunspot 1010–have just rotated out of view), and I’m pretty sure this time next year we’ll be inundated with sunspots… fingers crossed (I can’t wait to see some coronal loop arcades again). For now, good night our lazy Sun, I look forward to seeing more action in the coming months…