Lack of Sunspots may be sign of colder climate coming

In Part Two of Chief Meteorologist Mike Hoffman’s “What’s up with the Sun?” series he takes us to Tucson, Arizona to talk with some astronomers about the recent activity of the Sun.

Three hundred years ago there was a mini ice age here on Earth, and some believe it was at least partially caused by a lack of sunspots. We have to go to a sunnier part of our nation, Tucson, AZ, to find several astronomers who are studying the sun more closely.

You never want to look directly at the Sun, but astronomers have been looking at it for centuries and with telescopes they have seen a recent change in sunspots. Sunspots are actually large energy bursts from the middle of the Sun that pop onto the surface, showing up as dark patches.

Dr. Matthew Penn, Associate Astronomer at the National Solar Observatory said, “The Sun is a very active place where bubbles the size of Texas rise and fall at a mile per second.”

So these large magnetic fields, or sunspots actually cause the Sun to be slightly stronger, which creates a bit more heat here on Earth.

Dr. William Livingston, an Emeritus astronomer, indicates that a picture of the Sun taken on November 5, 2010 has no sunspots present.

In fact, it's been three centuries since we've had a period like this, which means we are heading into a time where the Sun may be slightly weaker.

We can see how this works every time we get in our vehicle. When it is clear and the sun is strong, it gets warm in the car. When it is weakened by clouds, the car cools off.

“As sunspot numbers increase, it seems to correlate to a warming of the global climate, and then as sunspot activity decreases there seems to be a general cooling,” said Dr. Mark Giampapa, the Deputy Director at the National Solar Observatory.

The National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, has several astronomers and scientists studying the Sun and similar stars in the universe. Dr. Giampapa is excited by what he finds.

He said, “We can't look into the future or the past, but by looking at a whole ensemble of stars it gives us a snapshot of all the possible ranges of activity.”

And it is the sunspot cycle that has been a bit out of whack lately.

“We think, though with the best measurements that we've made that when the sunspot cycle disappears for several cycles, it does produce a decrease in the temperature of the earth," said Dr. Penn.

Dr. Penn and Dr. Livingston have been measuring the infrared spectra of sunspots and their magnetic fields for 20 years, and they have noticed the strength has been declining that entire time. If, and that's a big if, that continues then it could lead to another long-term sunspot minimum on the Sun and perhaps a colder climate. But just like predicting tomorrow's weather, forecasting future climate has shown to be fraught with problems.

Dr. Giampapa said, “Recent models of global climate change that include man-made effects have not been accurate. For example, my understanding is that mean global temps peaked in 1998 and have either been flat or declined since that time and that was not predicted by current climate models.”

"Just like the stock market, it's really dangerous to extend any trend into the future," said Dr. Penn.

So while the trend may point toward lower sunspots and lower temperatures, there is still a lot more to try and learn.

You may be asking where this leaves the idea of global warming.

That is the million dollar question. It is still on the table along with other factors, but the one thing we know for sure is that there are huge implications for us as to how the climate turns out down the road.

You can read Part One of Mike's “What’s up with the Sun?” series, by clicking here

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