The return of sunspots! Maybe!

By Phil Plait | December 16, 2009 10:42 am

After a very long absence, it looks like the Sun may finally be kick-starting its magnetic cycle. A big ol’ group of sunspots has just appeared on our nearest star:


A quick comparison to the Sun’s disk (done with Photoshop, so don’t quote me extensively!) indicates this group of spots is about 10 times the width of the Earth, making it decently hefty. It’s the biggest group we’ve seen since the solar minimum a couple of years ago.

The Sun’s face has been almost entirely devoid of spots for some time, and it’s been getting a little weird. There was some activity earlier this year, but it didn’t seem to be gaining any footing. And while this new group of spots doesn’t mean the new solar cycle has finally gotten started, it’s a good sign.

As a quick refresher: the Sun is a variable star. Its magnetic activity strengthens and weakens over a roughly 22 year cycle. It’s actually two 11 year cycles: the field rises in strength over 5 or so years, peaks, then dips back down over the next 5 or so years. When it begins to rise again, the polarity (north/south) is reversed. To be clear, it’s not the actual spin of the Sun that flips, just the magnetic field poles. Also, it’s not exactly 5.5 years every time; the length of the cycle itself can change a bit.

When the Sun’s magnetic field is at its strongest, we see lots of sunspots, which are areas on the surface of the Sun where the local magnetic field lines constrain the movement of the Sun’s gas. The gas cools and dims, looking dark against the hotter gas. Normally, convection (like boiling water) would drag the cooler material down into the Sun’s interior, but the magnetic field prevents that, so sunspots can persist for days or weeks.

Mind you, it’s all far more complicated than this, but hopefully this gives you the idea.

Right now we’re at the minimum of the Sun’s magnetic cycle, and normally we would have seen a rise in magnetic activity more than year ago. But for some unknown reason the Sun has been slow to return to its usual business. No one is really sure what would happen if the minimum were prolonged for years, though there is a weak tie between sunspot activity and the Earth’s temperature (and no, not enough to account for global climate change).

solarfilament_dec2009In the face of all these unknowns, I’ll be honest and say I’d like to see the Sun getting back on the stick and producing spots again! So this new grouping is a tentative relief. Hopefully we’ll be seeing more spots soon.

Also, I’ll note that this grouping comes just a few days after a nice filament erupted from the Sun, as seen here by the STEREO spacecraft.

You can monitor the Sun in real time by going to the SOHO spacecraft website, where they frequently update pictures from the solar observatory.

Image credits: STEREO, SOHO, NASA/ESA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (40)

  1. Michelle R

    My gosh that thing is massive.

    Maybe it’s about time I get those solar binocolars I been wanting to buy…

  2. Antipaganda

    How awesome would it be if the Sun’s rotation really did change every 11 years or so? What sort of effects would it have on the Solar System? My instinct says it’d drag all the planets out of their orbits over millions of years through frame dragging, but instinct can be wrong…

  3. Wow! That sunspot group is so perfectly linear and looks like an arrow, too! Solar pareidolia!

    *Runs and hides*

  4. Harman Smith


    Solar binoculars? Tell me more…

  5. Alaskana

    Cool, the sunspots have finally returned! But, I must ask, why is this a good thing? For instance, let’s say another 2 years had gone on and there still were no sunspots. Would that indicate that something was amiss with our dear Sol?

  6. Dave R

    “No one is really sure what would happen if the minimum were prolonged for years,”

    (short answer: it would offset about 7 years of CO2 emissions.)

  7. SLC

    Speaking of climate change, is Dr. Plait going to comment on his pal James Randi, newly minted global warming skeptic?

  8. David

    Unlike many of the global warm models the sunspot model is testable in short term.

  9. Michelle R

    @Harman: Coronado Binomite binoculars. Look ’em up, they look swwweeeeeeeeeeeet

  10. Can anyone enlighten me as to the rather bright object to the right of the occulter in the LASCO C3 image on the SOHO site: ?

    My first guess would be Mercury, but I have no idea (since, well, I’m a chemist)

  11. Andrew Vickers

    I too am curious to know why BA is tentatively relieved to see sunspots again. I can understand a desire to return to the comfort of more familiar territory. But isn’t the unfamiliar more exciting? Doesn’t the unknown give us the opportunity to learn more? I would think that there is more scientific potential in a prolonged period of inactivity.

    Am I missing some deeper danger?

  12. Kaptain K

    I wouldn’t say the correlattion is all that weak. The Maunder Minimum coincides nicely with the “litttle ice age”

  13. Bobby

    Perfect – right in time for the 2012 event….

    or not :)

  14. featheredfrog

    #7: Maybe his yielding of the Presidency of JREF, aside from new tv opportunities, was precipiated by mr randi’s regrettable reasoning.

  15. Oldamateurastronomer


    After using a planetarium program called ‘Stellarium’, the most likely candidate for the bright object in that image is the planet Venus. It’s been a morning object for some time and will soon be disappearing into the Sun’s glare.

    Don’t apologize for being a chemist as that’s was what I was until I ‘retired’.

    If you’re interested in ‘knowing’ what’s up in the sky, the freeware program ‘Stellarium’ is a good start and is available at for Windows, Mac and Linux!!

  16. Matt S


    Looks like Venus according to the image available here. People seem to use these pictures to discover comets from the comfort of their homes! Neat.

  17. Levi in NY

    Hmmm…From the Wikipedia page on the SOHO spacecraft:

    “Originally planned as a two-year mission, SOHO currently continues to operate after over ten years in space. In October 2009, a mission extension lasting until December 2012 was approved.”

    An extension until December 2012, eh? Why not January 2013? Obviously because they know there won’t be a January 2013. They must have some data they’re hiding about the imminent explosion of the Sun.

  18. Oh, no! The Sun has developed blemishes, and right before we take the Christmas pictures! I’ll get the bottle of plasma-energy Clearasil.

  19. PaleGreenPantsWithNobodyInsideThem

    Why is there relief that this is happening, Phil. Was there any reason for worry, or was the worry that we may not understand the sun as well as we thought.

  20. J

    Obviously the sun has nothing to do with the climate of the Earth.

  21. Thanks to both Matt S (#16) and Oldamateurastronomer (#15)! It is indeed Venus, with a whopping -3.9 magnitude! This link of LASCO C3 transits confirms you are right:

    For 2009:

  22. J

    Dr. Phil, what do you think of this paper?

    Variation of cosmic ray flux and global cloud coverage—a missing link in solar-climate relationships

    In the search for a physical mechanism that could account for reported correlations between solar activity parameters and climate, we have investigated the global cloud cover observed by satellites. We find that the observed variation of 3–4% of the global cloud cover during the recent solar cycle is strongly correlated with the cosmic ray flux. This, in turn, is inversely correlated with the solar activity. The effect is larger at higher latitudes in agreement with the shielding effect of the Earth’s magnetic field on high-energy charged particles. The observed systematic variation in cloud cover will have a significant effect on the incoming solar radiation and may, therefore, provide a possible explanation of the tropospheric and stratospheric 10–12 year oscillations which have been reported. The above relation between cosmic ray flux and cloud cover should also be of importance in an explanation of the correlation between solar cycle length and global temperature, that has been found.

  23. Dayna

    As a shortwave radio listener, the return of sunspots make me very happy!

  24. Gary Ansorge

    Dang! Another Spot just before the xmas photos. Reminds me of when I was just a pup,,,

    21. J:
    Yes, the sun DOES have something to do with earths weather. It provides the heat,,,

    A minima of sunspots implies there is something going on we don’t understand and from the point of view of a high tech culture, susceptible to vagaries in the solar output of charged particles(cell phone outage, anyone?), that could bode ill for us, though not likely catastrophic.

    Still, it is good to see the Old Dude is running true to form. ie, round and hot.

    GAry 7

  25. Daniel J. Andrews

    Let me second that endorsement of Stellarium. Fantastic program. I set it back to 4 BC and then ran it forward to about 10 AD looking for possible conjunctions and alignments that would have produced a Christmas star. I’d go with the Jupiter doing the retrograde orbit around Regulus and being joined by a few other planetary bodies. Unfortunately, it seems to occur in the wrong year (after Herod was dead).

    The other ‘skeptic’ thing you can do is astrology. Use current year, pick a date and ask your astrologer friend which star sign the sun should be in. Then show him/her the sun is not in that star sign but in the adjacent one. Explain precession. Make the prediction that the sun will be in the proper star sign 2000 years ago though. So take the same date but set the year back 2000 years. This time the sun will be in the proper house. Next jump forward to 4000 AD and show the sun is now two star houses out of place.

    Sadly, my Stellarium is now kaput though. I updated to Windows 7 (64 bit machine), and Stellarium no longer runs properly. Online searches tell me others are experiencing similar problems. Still, I highly highly recommend this program assuming it runs on your machine. There is so much you can do with it, and it is free.

    Edit: To get on-topic, glad to see sunspots again for the simple reason the sun was getting boring to look at (mylar filter, 8 inch SC). Years ago I used to draw the sunspots on my sketch pad (still have those old drawings). Maybe I should start doing it again seeing as how the sun is ‘starting’ from the beginning now.

  26. Étienne

    Oh no! It’s the starting of the end of the world in 2012 hahaha!

  27. I just took my students out to look at the sun the other day (with proper solar filters and my telescope). It was such nice timing that these popped out.

    Now if only the temperature were above 20ºF….

  28. Spectroscope

    No one is really sure what would happen if the minimum were prolonged for years, though there is a weak tie between sunspot activity and the Earth’s temperature (and no, not enough to account for global climate change).

    I totally disagree there, BA.

    Solar minima like the Maunder, Sporer and Dalton minima have been connected to and co-relate perfectly with colder climate eras such as the Little Ice Age and solar maxima such as the Medieval maxima line up perfectly with the warmer climate eras such as the Medieval Warm Period.

    Other natural factors can also affect planetary climate in major ways such as volcanoes (both terrestrial & submarine), the positions of the continents, ocean-air heat circulation & convection patterns eg. El Nino-La Nina & the Gulfstream current, biological methane & Co2 emissions from wetlands & forests & algae, and astronomical factors such as Milankovitch orbital cycles, Earth’s axial tilt plus cosmic rays & their effect on clouds.

    All these factors far, *far* outweigh and swamp into invisibility the very dubiously connected, controversial and insignificant human Co2 emissions.

    But of all the factors controlling Earth’s climate the Sun is almost certainly the single most powerful and driving force – and climate records overlain on temperature charts demonstrate this to be the case.

    As genuine Skeptic, geologist and leading Climate expert Professor Ian Plimer concludes:

    “Occam’s Razor Rules: That great ball of heat in the sky drives climate.”
    – P. 147 Heaven & Earth – Global Warming: The Missing Science, 2009.

    That Carbon Dioxide, a trace gas in our atmosphere that makes up less than 1% of Earth’s atmosphere has been up to 25 x higher in the past and this has NOT resulted in a Venus-like “runaway greenhouse effect” and that Earth’s temperature has stabilised or even cooled since 1998 – twelve years ago now – despite continually rising human C02 emissions conclusively proves the whole “Anthropogenic Global Warming” idea is nothing but Gore’s Bull & complete rubbish.

  29. Gary Ansorge

    30. Spectroscope

    “But of all the factors controlling Earth’s climate the Sun is almost certainly the single most powerful and driving force – and climate records overlain on temperature charts demonstrate this to be the case”

    I don’t know how you can so consistently ignore one simple fact: if climate warming had ANYTHING to do with the sun, it would result in more warming at the equator and the upper atmosphere FIRST, which as we’ve already seen, is not the case. Warming is occurring faster in the northern hemisphere than the southern(consistent with the source of the majority of industrial pollutants) and is occurring close to the ground, (also consistent with industrial polution) rather than high in the atmosphere.

    GAry 7

  30. Spectroscope

    PS. If some people here disagree with me then that’s fine – you are wrong but entitled to your opinions. However, can you please try to argue your actual case and NOT just resort to name calling and personal attacks as AGW Alarmists (a factual label not an insult) always tend to do.

    Also don’t bother promoting or relying on the authority of “hockey Stick” fraudster Mike Mann’s “RealClimate” propaganda and lobby site which was among those implicated in the Climategate scandal and is known to censor & suppress dissenting views.

    PPS. @ Dr Phil Plait – I love your blog and think you are often 100% right and sensibly skeptical about religious and pseudo-scientific apocalypse scares such as the 2012 Mayan nonsense, “Nibiru / Planet X”, the anti-vaxxer insanity, “pyschics” like Sylvia Brown, the Creationist-ID~iotism, etc .. You generally fight the good fight against ignorance and superstition on the right side & I support you in this.

    However, on this specific issue, I truly believe you are allowing your political bias to overpower your skeptical, intelligent side. It saddens and disappoints me that you are strongly taking the side of those guilty of the major scientific fraud (&, yes, I consider this term *is* the most accurate & appropriate) now clearly revealed by the Climategate emails as well as Mann’s previous “hockey Stick” fraud and Al Gore’s politically driven lying hysteria.

    I urge you to read Ian Plimer’s book which I quoted above and to look at some skeptical websites such as &—just-not-the-one-you-were-told.html &

    I beg you for your own sake and that your readers to please reconsider your position – step back, look at what the real scientific evidence (not the manipuated and false CRU Alarmist variety) says, think long and hard and skeptically and reverse your postion on this issue.

    I and so many others will not think any less of you if you realise the real situation & admit you were wrong here and correct your past position of blind faith in the AGW Alarmist orthodoxy. Quite the reverse, our already high respect for you will only double or triple as a result! 😉

  31. Canuck observer

    (not the manipuated and false CRU Alarmist variety)

    And what published research, exactly, has been tainted by manipulated, false CRU data?

    We’re waiting.

  32. KC

    “Am I missing some deeper danger?”

    No. BA and the rest of us a relieved to see sunspots…because its boring without them!! Ever stare at a blank white-light image of the Sun? BORING!

  33. bad Jim

    During the last solar maximum I could see sunspots on a suitably cloudy day. As frustrating to stargazing as the Pacific marine layer can be, it occasionally pays off.

  34. Just me

    Back when I was in college, I used the school’s telescope to photograph sunspots. Very, very cool. One of these days, when I’m rich, I’ll buy a telescope and do more of that. :-)

  35. bad Jim

    There can be no more perfect an example of a lack of self-awareness than

    NOT just resort to name calling and personal attacks as AGW Alarmists (a factual label not an insult) always tend to do.

    “Alarmist” is a term quite recently introduced. I wonder who thought it up. Should we counter-attack by calling denialists “running dog lackeys of the coal and oil interests” or “useful idiots”? Since they are serving the interests of some corporate masters, although perhaps not generally wittingly, would it actually help to raise the question of cui bono?

  36. Yama


    1. What exactly makes Ian Plimer “leading climate expert”? As far as I can see, he has no climate background whatsoever. He does have considerable amount of libertarian political background though.

    2. The idea of “globe has cooled since 1998” is nonsense. Last 10 years have been considerable warmer than the previous 10 years. Only thing which is true is that some monthly records from 1998 have not been exceeded.

    3. Sun is, despite everything, remarkably stable. Change of irradiance in 11 year sunspot cycle is only around 0.1% – and long-term variation tends to be smaller than that. Sunspot cycle does not result to 11-year cooling/warming period on Earth. Solar activity or cosmic rays are really poor in explaining climate change of last 100 years.

  37. Andrew Vickers

    #34 – I’m not buying the “boredom” argument. Surely, the unusal length of this cycle is exciting data. It is new territory that gives astronomers more information and could lead to new insights into the workings of the sun.

    I recall being frustrated and disappointed by a lack of sunspots when I was 13 years old and had a science project to observe the rotational speed of the sun, but professional astronomers like BA are not doing school projects – their brand of science is waaaay cooler. BA – please tell me your relief is not just because of boredom.


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