Spotty conclusions about 2012

By Phil Plait | January 23, 2009 11:01 am

Via AstroEngine I just learned of something that is totally cool: an interactive sunspot tool that gives you a sunspot graph for any date.

It queries a table of sunspot numbers on the Sun’s face (averaged over one month) and then plots it, with a time range of 5.5 years on either side, so you see one full 11 year sunspot cycle. The obvious thing to do is input your birthdate. I put in mine, and it’s smack dab in the middle of that particular cycle’s minimum. I mean right on it.

I don’t know what this says about me. I’m guessing nothing.

But I have an interesting idea for this. A lot of people are all panicky over December 2012, because a whole lot of folks are out there lying about it to make money (OK, some are honest, but still wrong, wrong wrong). Some of these doomsayers are claiming the Sun will be blasting out flares at that time, and that could spell trouble on Earth. And yes, there is a lot of flare activity around sunspot peak… but in general the largest and more energetic events happen well after the peak, by as much as a couple of years!

One of the largest flares ever seen was on November 4, 2003. Put that date in the sunspot grapher:

Sunspots on Nov 4 2003

That’s halfway down to the minimum! In fact, the Sun belched out numerous huge events that month, shocking solar astronomers. So while chances are good there will be plenty of solar activity at the peak of the next cycle, predicted to be in 2012, the real fun happens later than the doomcriers would have you think.

So in the next few years, anytime you hear of a big flare, or people trying to tie earthquake activity to the Sun, or whatever, check out that graphing tool and get the actual information for yourself. You may find — gasp — that some people tend to exaggerate reality to promote non-reality.

Comments (41)

  1. IVAN3MAN

    From Wikipedia — Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds:

    “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one!”

    “Of all the offspring of Time, Error is the most ancient, and is so old and familiar an acquaintance, that Truth, when discovered, comes upon most of us like an intruder, and meets the intruder’s welcome.”

  2. Oh, so that explains global warming.
    (Laughing out loud on my own.)

  3. I suppose as soon as 2012 passes without incident, the fools will latch on to 2036 instead. It’s always a moving goalpost for these people isn’t it?

  4. Anthony

    The Nov 4th 2003 solar flare was simply a birthday present for me. I hope you aren’t jealous.

  5. Charles Boyer

    suppose as soon as 2012 passes without incident, the fools will latch on to 2036 instead.

    When does Unix run out of dates again? Oh, that’s right, 2038. It’s the end of time for one of the oldest and still most widely used computer operating systems on the planet.

    Everybody panic!11!!11!

  6. Peptron

    I think 2012 won’t be too hard. I have personally survived all the previous ends of the world. In fact they went so easy that I am not sure what ended. Last time I remember reaching the end of the world was while playing Super Mario Bros 3. You kill those Bowser children at the end of the map, effectively reaching the end of the world. In some good evenings you can witness multiple ends of worlds. All the worlds have an apocalyptic setting too. There is a desert world, an ice world, a water world, a world where everybody is giant and other horrific settings that make the Silent Hills series pale in comparison.

    (Joke aside, I once found a site that listed all the claims of “end of the world” that didn’t actually occur. There was an end of the world scenario most years.)

  7. But…weren’t the Mayans right, after all? They don’t need any calendar anymore. So, to let it end in 2012 was a well-foresighted thing (and only a few centuries late, probably as a safety margin).

  8. @ Peptron, you mean this page: http://www.religioustolerance.org/end_wrl1.htm It’s always good for a laugh! :)

  9. Larian, I think these people have to find/make up some goalpost in between, 24 years are way too long. :) I guess after some time explaining why nothing particular happened in 2012, they’ll move on to the next nonsense they can make money from or make people crazy with…

    And don’t forget, it’s not just doomcriers for 2012, but also next-level-of-consciousness and new-spiritual-dimension crackpots of various kinds, selling books “educating” people to be prepared for that stuff. (Coincidentally, I just wrote my “prophecies” about such nonsense today…)

  10. James

    http://www.firstshowing.net/2008/11/15/roland-emmerichs-2012-viral-institute-for-human-continuity/

    DR. Plait and friends please check out this link and tell me what are your thoughts on it. It says that science has confirmed that there’s a 94% chance.

  11. James, yeah, that’s a promo for a movie, so I have my doubts it’s based on rigorous scientific research. :)

  12. Joshman

    Hi friends,
    Someone sent me this link and since it’s part of the topic I’d like to know your thoughts on this.
    http://www.gvnr.com/74/3.htm

  13. Joshman

    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast15feb_1.htm

    Here is an official NASA link tht does predict that pole shift.

  14. Jason Heldenbrand

    It’s certainly nothing to celebrate Phil, but have you heard of the children who died in Minnesota because their parents refused to vaccinate them?

  15. Chris A.

    @Larian:

    “I suppose as soon as 2012 passes without incident, the fools will latch on to 2036 instead. It’s always a moving goalpost for these people isn’t it?”

    I prefer the term “pseudoscience whack-a-mole.”

  16. Interesting…I was born during the 1968 solar max. Maybe all those extra cosmic rays is what’s wrong with me. :D

  17. Loaf Of Bread

    I predict the solar system will end on January 1, 4,500,002,000 at 3:00 in the forenoon–give or take a few hundred million years. And if I have my numbers right, I figure I can back that prediction up scientifically.

  18. sophia8

    A Brief History of the Apocalypse is a great site for end-of-the-world dates. This is the earliest known end-of-the-world prediction they list:
    According to Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts (1979), an Assyrian clay tablet dating to approximately 2800 BC was unearthed bearing the words “Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common.”

  19. The folks flogging the 2012 breathlessness are desperate to make a few bucks, that’s for sure. When I blogged about this a week or so back (see my Jan 11 entry, click on my name for blog link), I got a few private emails from people who were upset that I was calling it like I saw it… I invited them to put on their critical thinking caps and not abandon their higher processes to commercially induced fear-mongering… one of them told me I’d be sorry when “2012 roles (sic) around and the hole (sic) world is in choas (sic)” (mispellings NOT mine)).

    I don’t see anything about choas in the prophecies though…

  20. Oh, and that sunspot thing is cool — I had it look at my birthday last night — and nothin… the Sun was asleep at the nuclear furnace when I was born…

  21. Hi Phil, glad you enjoyed this little gadget (so simple but way cool) :-) My birthday was right smack bang in the middle of the early ’80′s solar max.

    I am the spawn of a sunspot, really.

    I remember that 2003 flare very well, plus I had the superb fortune to be working in a solar physics group at the time. When we saw the sandblasting the Sun was giving us via SOHO, there was a shedload of excitement, we weren’t really expecting anything that big!

    As for the 2012 hysteria… I don’t know how you do it. I’ve only been writing about it since May and I’m beginning to feel the “rage”. I’m glad I’m able to expose the misinformation being spread by a few crazies, but it’s tiring!

    Oh yes, there is a new breed of Moon hoaxer out there now (they seem to be acquiring sizeable budgets for poorly researched films). I went to see the premier of a film that was released in Hollywood last night… oh dear. In a nutshell: Aliens are living on the Moon. NASA is at war with them. It all has something to do with the Nazis. And the lunar landscape isn’t “grey”, it’s “green”, as in fields and stuff… Needless to say, I walked out. I went there to try to gain a grasp on the psychology behind the hoaxers, all I could see was the potential for lots of $$. So going back to your point that doomsayers are lying to make money, now Moon hoaxers are using fear to sell DVDs (with the help of George Noory).

    I think I’ll go back to the solar physics.

    Cheers! Ian :-)

  22. I already devised a whole new branch of astrology based on this. I’ll start promoting it in a 200-page book I’ll write during the next weekend and which will be published by February, and then will set up a web-based operation offering advise in exchange for hard currency (i.e., euros. Plenty of ‘em). Soon, I’ll be annoyingly wealthy and will, perhaps, just perhaps, give Phil a grant by way of thanks, provided he debunks me often as a charlatan. All publicity is good publicity.

    This is my strategy to become an evil overlord. Now let’s practice the Evil Loughter (TM). MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  23. Joshman

    Can someone respond to this though??? Only curiousity.
    http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast15feb_1.htm

    Here is an official NASA link tht does predict that pole shift.

  24. Optimus

    The world isn’t going to be destroyed by sunspots in 2012…

    But it is going to be destroyed by Unicron…

  25. Joshman, you’re a bit confused on the pole shift. What that article is talking about is the Sun’s magnetic field doing a polarity reversal, where the magnetic field of the Sun swaps north and south pole. That happens every 11 years, and we’re still here.

  26. I think Josh was referring to the one paragraph in the article that mentioned that the Earth’s field shift polarity as well, just not as regularly. Which is one of the doomsday scenarios that the 2012ers are shrieking about. Yes, the earth’s field changes polarity, but effects on the environment are unknown as is its next expected change. There’s a lovely article on Universe Today covering the 2012 magnetic reversal doomsday scenario.

    Put simply:
    a) it’s not tied to the solar polarity switch
    b) it’s unlikely to happen in the next 3 or so years
    c) it’s unlikely that there will be large effects on the earth and it’s inhabitants other than really great auroral displays and some temporarily confused birds.

  27. Knurl

    @Peptron Says:
    January 23rd, 2009 at 12:25 pm I think 2012 won’t be too hard. I have personally survived all the previous ends of the world.

    Same here. We always throw parties. But the second last time the world ended I was doing a keg stand and sort of collapsed on the keg. Man, was my shoulder sore the next day. Now I’m careful at such parties because I can tell you for sure that the last thing you want is a sore shoulder the day after the world ends.

  28. Fran Manns, Ph.D., P.Geo. (Ontario)

    Keeping in mind that windmills are hazardous to birds, be wary of the unintended consequences of believing and contributing to the all-knowing environmental lobby groups.
    Water vapour (0.4% overall but 1 – 4 % near the surface) is the most effective green house gas followed by methane (0.0001745%). The third ranking greenhouse gas is CO2 (0.0383%), and it does not correlate well with global warming or cooling either; in fact, CO2 in the atmosphere trails warming which is clear natural evidence for its well-studied inverse solubility in water: CO2 dissolves in cold water and bubbles out of warm water. The equilibrium in seawater is very high; making seawater a great ‘sink’; CO2 is 34 times more soluble in water than air is soluble in water.
    Correlation is not causation to be sure. The causation is being studied, however, and while the radiation from the sun varies only in the fourth decimal place, the magnetism is awesome.
    “Using a box of air in a Copenhagen lab, physicists traced the growth of clusters of molecules of the kind that build cloud condensation nuclei. These are specks of sulphuric acid on which cloud droplets form. High-energy particles driven through the laboratory ceiling by exploded stars far away in the Galaxy – the cosmic rays – liberate electrons in the air, which help the molecular clusters to form much faster than climate scientists have modeled in the atmosphere. That may explain the link between cosmic rays, cloudiness and climate change.”
    As I understand it, the hypothesis of the Danish National Space Center goes as follows:
    Quiet sun → reduced magnetic and thermal flux = reduced solar wind → geomagnetic shield drops → galactic cosmic ray flux → more low-level clouds and more snow → more albedo effect (more heat reflected) → colder climate
    Active sun → enhanced magnetic and thermal flux = solar wind → geomagnetic shield response → less low-level clouds → less albedo (less heat reflected) → warmer climate
    That is how the bulk of climate change might work, coupled with (modulated by) sunspot peak frequency there are cycles of global warming and cooling like waves in the ocean. When the waves are closely spaced, the planets warm; when the waves are spaced farther apart, the planets cool.
    The ultimate cause of the solar magnetic cycle may be cyclicity in the Sun-Jupiter centre of gravity. We await more on that. In addition, although the post 60s warming period is over, it has allowed the principal green house gas, water vapour, to kick in with humidity, clouds, rain and snow depending on where you live to provide the negative feedback that scientists use to explain the existence of complex life on Earth for 550 million years. The planet heats and cools naturally and our gasses are the thermostat.
    Check the web site of the Danish National Space Center.
    http://www.space.dtu.dk/English/Research/Research_divisions/Sun_Climate/Experiments_SC/SKY.aspx

  29. Gary Ansorge

    Ah sunspots, blemishes on the face of perfection,,,
    Doomsday scenarios based upon sunspot activity seem to be a hold over from the days of Catholic insistence that the heavens, being the (presumed) abode of God and the angels, must always be perfect, therefore any OBSERVED imperfections must be demonic illusions(or signs that the END is upon us).

    I note that we had a sunspot (near) minima the day I was born(9/27/43), also, we had a (near) sunspot maxima on 9/11/01. Causal connection, anyone,,,crickets???

    I guess the reason I’m so perfect is that there was very little radiation induced interference with my DNA in 1943.
    ,,,and the reason we went crazy after 9/11 was due to all that noise from the sun,,,if you like that idea, send money before your chance(to send money) lapses,,,

    Crud. MAybe I should just emulate the founder of scientology, start my own religion and retire to a yacht off the coast of Great Britain.
    (unfortunately, I like being able to look at myself in the mirror w/o gagging).

    GAry 7

  30. COry

    In the mythology of the Aztecs, the first age of mankind ended with the animals devouring humans. The second age was finished by wind, the third by fire, and the fourth by water. The present fifth epoch is called Nahui-Olin (Sun of Earthquake), which began in 3113 BC and will end on December 24, 2011.

    The Mayan calendar is divided into Seven Ages of Man. The fourth epoch ended in August 1987. The Mayan calendar comes to an end on Sunday, December 23, 2012. Only a few people will survive the catastrophe that ensues.

  31. Fran Manns, Ph.D., P.Geo. (Ontario)

    Too bad there are so many crapcpots blogging. You know you are wasting precious energy.

  32. Joshman

    Any one have any coments on this? “In the mythology of the Aztecs, the first age of mankind ended with the animals devouring humans. The second age was finished by wind, the third by fire, and the fourth by water. The present fifth epoch is called Nahui-Olin (Sun of Earthquake), which began in 3113 BC and will end on December 24, 2011.

    The Mayan calendar is divided into Seven Ages of Man. The fourth epoch ended in August 1987. The Mayan calendar comes to an end on Sunday, December 23, 2012. Only a few people will survive the catastrophe that ensues.”

  33. KC

    “As I understand it, the hypothesis of the Danish National Space Center goes as follows…”

    If it is so simple Fran, how come the average temp of the Earth doesn’t follow the sunspot cycle at all?

    “Any one have any coments on this? “In the mythology of the Aztecs….”

    Well Joshman what would you like us to comment on? The past is littered with idiots who predicted the imminent End of Times and were completely, utterly, *wrong*.

    As Charles Schultz once wrote: “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today. It’s already tomorrow in Australia.” :-)

  34. Joshman (COry): You’re posting that exact same text on almost every one of Phil’s posts. In every one but this one, I have pointed you to some very good articles on Universe Today about the 2012 nonsense. So yes, I have commented on it several times. Although, I suspect that you are not going to read the articles and doubt to you even come back to actually see if anyone has commented. You’re just trying to stir people up and I think you need to find something more constructive to do with your time.

    Phil, might be well worth thinking about requiring registration to post. I’m sure most of the people who read the blog will take the minor inconvenience in stride.

  35. COry

    Sorry to all for any inconveience my comment may have caused. Was just doing my daily reading and had seen these dates come up mor than once. Oh and what happen to the solar flare stall of the sun that had been in so many news articles of late?

  36. Amanda

    I’m confused. I clicked the link to AstroEngine’s interactive sunspot tool as suggested. I found the drop-down menu to only go until 2010! How did Phil Plait find the predicted data for 2012?

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