The Sun may be headed for a little quiet time

By Phil Plait | June 14, 2011 11:01 am

Is the solar cycle shutting down?

New results indicate it may very well be, at least temporarily. Even though the Sun is currently approaching the peak of its cycle in 2013, and we’re seeing an increase in activity (more sunspots, flares, and other violent events), there are strong signs that the next expected peak (in 2022 or later) may be weaker, or may not come at all!

Here’s the deal. The Sun is a seething ball of ionized gas, called plasma, and has very complex magnetic fields that interact with this plasma. The overall strength and activity from the magnetic field rises and falls on roughly an 11 year cycle. When the cycle is at its minimum the field strength is weak, and we see few or no sunspots or other activity. Then, a little over five years later, the cycle peaks and there’s lots of fun stuff going on, with flares, coronal mass ejections, and more.

Scientists studying the Sun have been trying to figure out this cycle for over a century. It’s very complex, but as technology has gotten better, some trends have been found. And recently, these indicators are all pointing to the Sun settling down magnetically.

For one, there is an east/west river of gas the flows under the surface of the Sun (it can’t be seen directly, but it generates sound waves that travel from it to the surface, revealing its presence; I describe this in detail in an earlier post). This river comes and goes, but usually forms at mid-latitudes on the Sun and shifts toward the equator as the cycle progresses. As it does so, sunspots form above it. Although the next cycle won’t start for a few years, the river associated with it should already be forming. However, there are no indications it has, making astronomers think the next cycle may be delayed.

For another, scientists have found that the average magnetic strength of sunspots has been declining over the years. Sunspots form when magnetic fields inside the Sun break through the surface. Normally, rising gas from the solar interior would cool and drop back down, but due to the way the magnetic fields interact with the gas, the cool gas is prevented from dropping. Cooler gas is dimmer, so we see this as dark spots on the Sun: sunspots.

Sunspots are an intrinsically magnetic phenomenon, so this trend of weaker magnetic fields inside them may be indicating, again, the next cycle may be delayed or not come at all.

Moving farther outward yet we come to the third line of evidence of a weak upcoming cycle. The Sun has an atmosphere, called the corona, of very thin but extremely hot plasma. It too is greatly affected by magnetic fields; every cycle the magnetic activity in the corona tends to form near the Sun’s equator and then slowly move toward the poles over the next few years. This "rush to the poles", as the scientists call it, is very weak this year, and may indicate that the peak in 2013 may not be terribly active. It’s unclear what this might mean for the cycle peak after that.

So what does this mean for us? Well, it’s hard to say. In some sense this may be good news; when the Sun is active it tends to have violent explosions like flares and coronal mass ejections, and these can damage our satellites or even cause power blackouts on Earth. A weaker cycle means less chance of that. Yay!

However (isn’t there always a "however"?), back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a crippling cold snap in Europe called the Little Ice Age, and it coincided with a time of almost no sunspots or other solar activity (called the Maunder Minimum). The connection still isn’t all that clear — for example, North America had climate issues too, but not as severe as Europe, and while the winters in Europe were terrible, the summers weren’t all that much cooler. Apparently there were other factors, including volcanic eruptions and an unusually weak jet stream (which is affected by ozone production in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, which in turn was lowered due to lower solar activity!), amplifying this effect. You can read about this in detail in my book Death from the Skies!

Mind you, these indicators don’t say much about the long-term magnetic health of the Sun; only that we may experience a weak peak in 2013 and a weaker or delayed peak the time around. After that, who knows?

Also, it seems very unlikely to me that we might experience another global cooling period due to this weakened sunspot cycle, but it shows you that there are very sensitive effects going on here that are very difficult to predict — and let me take this chance here to say that no, the Sun is not responsible for global warming, as has been shown fairly conclusively. It can mildly amplify or suppress such things, but is not the main driver of it. If it were, we’d see very strong correlations between the climate and solar activity on a decade-by-decade basis (or even shorter as sunspots form and dissipate over the course of days and weeks). We don’t, and therefore the Sun is not the culprit.

The point is the Sun is a complex beast, and it’s only just now that we are able to make any predictions about it at all. Even this one is not a sure thing, though I’ll admit the fact that three different lines of evidence point toward a weaker cycle are very interesting to say the least! I do hope they’re correct, actually. Not because I want to see one particular outcome or another from the next cycle, but because if these predictions do pan out it means we are beginning to understand the fiendishly complicated physics of our nearest star. Any time we can do that it means we can be prepared if it does decide to do something nasty.

Credit: NASA/SDO/AIA; IBIS/Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope

Related posts:

Is global warming solar induced?
Here comes the Sun(spot)!
The Sun blasts out a flare and a huge filament
The Sun lets loose a HUGE explosion


Comments (60)

  1. Dys

    My first thought is ‘oh, dear god, the sun is dying!’.
    Then sanity steps in and points out that it’s been there a very long time and will likely be there for a very long time to come. Does bring me to wonder how much variation it has experienced during the lifetime of the human race, which we were never able to see or appreciate. The sun seems like a changeless, eternal thing, like all stars do, but the truth is, as usual, far more wonderful.

    There is also the worry that if we do experience some cooling from the weakening, the climate change debate is going to suffer another ‘What global warming? It’s snowing!’ episode. Then of course it seems wise to consider that dogmatically insisting that atmospheric CO2 is a bad thing largely misses the point. For all our technology we as a species inhabit a fairly narrow range of temperatures. It would be just as uncomfortable to drop a few degrees as it would be to gain them.

    All of which makes me think that the sooner we develop comprehensive and effective climate engineering the better.

  2. DrFlimmer

    A weaker cycle means less chance of that. Yay!

    However (yeah, there is always one! ;)), one can be enough. Was it in 2003 (or 2005), when in the declining phase of the previous cycle suddenly two major flares erupted which caused (only) northern lights shining at least as far south as Germany? This means, the chances of a big flare drop during a weaker cycle, but they are still far above 0.

    Another question: What were the results of that “current” in the sun before this cycle began? I mean, this cycle had also quite a late start, so it would be interesting to know if the current has also been weak or delayed.

    Speaking of global warming: Maybe the “not-so-active” sun gives us the chance to minimize the effects of AGW. Since the sun will possibly slow down the warming trend, we may yet have the chance to keep the temperature increase below 2°C. Still: We have to act now!

  3. Rory Kent

    Already? We only just got out of a minimum.

  4. ASFalcon13

    “the Sun is not responsible for global warming”

    Complete and utter bull. Explain to me then why the temperature tends to get higher after sunrise and over the course of the day, but gets colder at night after the sun has set? The sun is definitely warming whatever side of the globe is facing it at the time.

    [/pedantic] :)

  5. réalta fuar

    Actually, the really dangerous “Carrington Event” type CMEs tend to come during WEAKER sunspot cycles, so we might (with emphasis on the “might”) be MORE likely to see one of those in the next few decades. I looked three times, but still couldn’t find a reference for the “new stuff” in this post.

  6. Chris

    That sucks. Just when I’m getting old enough to appreciate it. :-(

  7. So the conspiracy theories my parents espouse regarding solar activity/aliens/seismic activity/the price of gold are then…unfounded? I’m speechless.

  8. “In some sense this may be good news; when the Sun is active it tends to have violent explosions like flares and coronal mass ejections”

    Wasn’t the solar cycle during the Carrington Event (1859) comparatively low? Are there fewer strong flares during low solar cycles?

  9. Paul

    Well, there’s only one thing we can do …

    Send out a spacecraft to re-ignite the Sun’s core.

    There’s already been a documentary program explaining just how to do it.

  10. The last paragraph is awesome!

  11. Imrryr

    Our sun deserves a time out. It can’t just keep eating comets like it has been doing lately. Didn’t the nebula it formed from teach it any manners?

  12. Gonçalo Aguiar

    Hmm. So this means global warming will stall for around 10 years? As far as I remember 2008 was one of the most hot years in history and it was during a solar maximum. If solar activity slows down in the next 10 years, we (humans) can thank the gods in giving us some more time to think and develop a non-carbon society. Or is it too late even though?

  13. truthspeaker

    “Dys Says:
    June 14th, 2011 at 11:27 am

    My first thought is ‘oh, dear god, the sun is dying!’.
    Then sanity steps in and points out that it’s been there a very long time and will likely be there for a very long time to come.”

    But surely you learned in school that the sun goes through cycles where it is more active and than less.

    Please tell me you learned that in school.

  14. Disco

    I’ve always loved the coincidence I first had drawn to my attention in Asimov’s “The Sun Shines Bright”. In it he interweaves details about sun spots and the occurence of the Maunder minimum with the reign of Louis XIV. Noting how the king moved the centre of political power from Paris to Versailles, brought the nobility to heal and made himself the unrivalled head of state, taking as his symbol the sun and calling himself Le Roi Soleil. Asimov finishes the summary with the observation that the ruler whose long reign almost exactly coincided with a period when the sun shone in ‘pure and unspotted majested’ happened to call himself (and is still known as) the Sun King.

  15. John Sandlin

    Perhaps, ASFalcon13, we should say that while the sun is responsible for the Earth being warm, it is not responsible for the changing equilibrium point that most call global warming / climate change.

  16. frankenstein monster

    Maybe it is a good thing. If the sun does another maunder minimum/little ice age lasting 150 years, it will give us a plenty of time to fix this CO2 mess we made.
    On the other hand, it may just delay its effects and thus worsen the situation by partially masking the effects of global warming, thus allowing higher concentrations of CO2 to accumulate before we are forced either to do something or before famine driven civilization collapse will prevent us from doing more harm.

  17. Dave R

    @2: “Maybe the “not-so-active” sun gives us the chance to minimize the effects of AGW”

    What if the sun got stuck?

    Bottom line: “Thus if the sun remains “out”, i.e., stuck for a long period in the current solar minimum, it can offset only about 7 years of CO2 increase.”

  18. Joe

    It’s a good thing we’ve banked up all that carbon. I’d hate for it to get too cold.

  19. Ken

    Not the sun??

    Then explain the following:

    Note that the collection of controlled experimental data is still pending (by an international group of scientists from CERN–and they’re pretty competent)…but prelimary data supports the theory. The only real question is, “how much?” does the sun influence climate.

    And, also note that NASA’s Global Climate Change website, , likewise cites solar effects & clouds as major uncertainties (as does the IPCC).

    Thus, to assert that ‘it’s not the Sun’ so confidently [and so simplistically] is very inconsistent with how the experts–experts everybody agrees are experts–actually understand the situation.

  20. Brian Too

    Random thought. Wouldn’t it be great if we could access the history of the Sun’s activity? I mean, if we want to understand Sol, a long record of the stellar activity would be a goldmine, no? And it would be a great resource for stellar dynamics generally too.

    I have in mind the equivalent of the tree rings/polar ice cores/lava flows that have provided so much data about matters closer to home.

    Unfortunately I admit to having no idea where specifically to look, what to look for, and what the recording mechanism would be.

  21. Dave R

    >Then explain the following:

    That’s a presentation by an advocate of a fringe theory that has been widely debunked in the peer-reviewed literature. (See

    >And, also note that NASA’s Global Climate Change website

    …states that there is “no evidence of a trend in solar output over the past half century”, the period of the recent global warming, for which we have very good measurements from satellites. (See The uncertainties they refer to are about earlier times where there is a proxy record but no direct measurements.

  22. Sam H

    Not really worried about anything here, but if we’ve seen a declining trend since we’ve been able to collect data could this be part of some long-term stellar cycle? All stars seem to regular cycles of some kind anyway (when more dramatic it causes things like variable stars). Any thoughts on that one?

  23. Bruce

    The Sun is not responsible for global warming. Absolutely not. That would go against the global warming religious commandment that only CO2 causes global warming. Suggesting otherwise would be blasphemy. So let it be written, so let it be done.

  24. Mark Schaffer

    So Bruce,
    You are saying the sun’s output has been increasing for over a century to drive warming and that this happened to occur when the modern industrial age started? What does the data say about this? While you are pondering this please read the many articles here:

  25. Jess Tauber

    Harold Camping predicted this too, and was going to announce this when the evil dwarf space ninjas shot powerful auric nuclei cosmic rays through his head (which wouldn’t have happened if the Sun’s magnetic field was up to snuff to keep the little devils out).

    So you better hold onto something because the Meandering Millennium Minimum is here! Only the faithful will be saved. Everyone else shall be spent!

    His Master’s Voice

  26. DrFlimmer

    @ #17 Dave R

    7 years? That’s better than nothing. But we must act quickly (– and noone cares….).

  27. Ken

    Dave R., Gorey,

    If the peer-reviewed literature debunked CERN’s ongoing CLOUD experiment ( ) …how did they do it without any objective data??

    The data doesn’t exist (and note NASA’s website concedes the dearth of data as well…as does the IPCC report)–that’s why the CERN group is doing the experiment. Its also partly why NASA, etc. are launching more satellites to study clouds (e.g. CLOUDSAT Calipso (NASA/LaRC and CNES), etc.).

    Of course, “Bruce Says” is on the mark–belief is key regarding “global warming”/”climate change”/”climate disruption” — and even a [so-called] science blog such as this one, belief trumps objectivity.

    What’s been “debunked” is one researcher’s (Svensmark?) early assertion based on selective data that the sun/cosmic ray/cloud/cooling effect is significant; others have used other data & not found such a correlation. However, subsequent researchers have found such a correlation AND have made an attempt to quantify it–concluding the effect is minor.

    But, ALL of that research is confounded by very poor data, where it exists, and generally no data forcing use of proxies.

    Until the data is in, nothing has been “debunked” in basic principle — the issue is just, “how much of an effect?” What is known with certainty is that the effect exists and is something between something measurable (but not significant) to, possibly, something that dominates observed trends.

    NOTE that other researchers have noted an absence of warming — predictions made a few years ago ALL fall way short of what’s being observed — and this is correlating with low solar activity. Again.

    Just this week its been announced that solar changes & observed responses on Earth (e.g. with the Aurora) may lag by eight months or so ( — no-one knew why (and no-one knows why sunspots are in decline now:

    All of which illustrates just how much we don’t know about the Sun or how it effects events on Earth.

    You can be absolutely certain that no peer-reviewed paper accounts for the above eight-month lag in effects simply due to the fact that this has just been discovered & published in the past few days.

    Which is to say, as far as the Sun & solar effects go…the science is far from settled.

  28. Ken

    The paper of the recently discovered solar-Earth effect (with appx. eight month lag) is summarized by NASA JPL at its website:

    The detailed paper is provided by the European Geosciences Union at:


    Complete Paper:

    These provide additional insight into why there was a correlation between low solar actvity & the global cooling observed during the Maunder Minimum This blog author would have you read his book, which may be ok on this topic…but the real news is just published at the above links. And have no doubt more will be forthcoming.

    And, again, none of those newly discovered effects are factored into any climate model.

  29. Kyle

    Yeah but low sunspot activity mean few good days for long range ham radio contacts. Hams like sunspots.

  30. Venture Free

    It never ceases to amaze me how amazingly brilliant, and yet incredibly stupid the Global Warming conspiracy is. They have such complete control over the scientific world that no study that could ever possibly contradict them is even allowed to be considered, let alone published. As proof, we have this scientific study that was just published that clearly contradicts them.

    If I’m reading this correctly (and if you try to say I’m not, then I’ll know you’re part of the conspiracy), it says that the Earth will completely freeze over within the next few years. This study proves that you can’t trust any scientific study whatsoever…except for this one for some reason.

  31. drow

    it’s the star aliens, using the monolith on the moon to manipulate the sun and compensate for our co2 problem.

  32. The author of this fascinating and well-written piece hastens to assure everyone:

    ” it seems very unlikely to me that we might experience another global cooling period due to this weakened sunspot cycle”

    It seems very unlikely to me….it seems very unlikely to me….it seems very unlikely to me… and so on and on. Thanks for your reassurance. But knowing that the ill effects of a global cooling are at least 3 orders of magnitude worse (in terms of human deaths) than the same degree of global warming, you understand the need to provide reassurance.

    Keep it coming, please. We hate it when it seems the deniers may not be totally absolute loons!

  33. JustAPerson

    Those of you above seem to be in some kind of false either/or dichotomy. Unusual climate patterns are evident and obviously both the sun (or, whatever is effecting the sun) and various industry-made emissions (particulate, liquid, gaseous and electromagnetic) play a role.

    I don’t think it wise to underestimate the powerful role of cosmic forces on our climate.

    To underestimate the effects of our apparent inability to control industrial pollution in even a basic sense – I find it nothing short of shocking that anyone who would consider him or herself informed would genuinely hold such an opinion.

    It’s a simple concept, really. Every action has an effect. Big changes in result in big changes out, and they occur in a complicated system with many delicate balances – so we’ve been pretty rudimentary in our ability to predict just how and when the outcomes manifest. We have a limited window of changes we can adapt to, and the world is changing whether we pay attention or not. If we pay attention to everything going on, we increase our chances of keeping the world in the window where human beings can survive and – ideally – thrive. For those particularly interested in industrial emissions – please study those, but pay close attention to what the cosmic researchers find. Those interested in cosmic influences, vice versa. The world is multidisciplinary. Nobody ever said science would be easy.

  34. JustAPerson

    AFFECTING the sun. I swear, I do remember grad school grammar. How embarrassing.

  35. JustAPerson

    grade school! Geez!

  36. Steve Metzler

    AFFECTING the sun. I swear, I do remember grad school grammar. How embarrassing.

    grade school! Geez!

    Muphry’s Law gets em’ every time. Fun to watch them writhe on the hook :-)

  37. dave chamberlin

    I try to hide from the political ideology idiots here at the science blogs but with a subject like global warming the clowns are bound to show up with their silly absolutists pronouncements. Sometimes they are just attention seeking trolls, sometimes they have lost all ability to look at the surrounding world with the complexity it deserves. Some of them really aren’t stupid but need to mix emotional beliefs with all opinions which transforms their critical thinking into nothing more than childish rants. It would only be sad if they weren’t so numerous that they can elect their own kind as president, but because they can I fear and despise them for all the harm they have caused and will cause.

  38. Dave R

    >And, again, none of those newly discovered effects are factored into any climate model.

    Also, the effect of trends in the number of pirates are not factored into any climate model. As usual for conspiracy nuts, you’re trying to shift the burden of proof. If you think a significant factor is missing from climate models, it is up to you to demonstrate that your supposed factor has a significant impact on the results.

  39. Dave R

    R J Parker:
    >It seems very unlikely to me….it seems very unlikely to me….it seems very unlikely to me… and so on and on. Thanks for your reassurance.

    A link has already been provided showing the reasoning and calculation that backs up the BA’s opinion. If you’ve got anything more than hot air with which to dispute it, let’s see it.

  40. Dave R

    >I don’t think it wise to underestimate the [begging the question] powerful role of cosmic forces on our climate.

    The BA did not underestimate them. He put them in perspective — far smaller than the effect of the human-caused rise in greenhouse gas levels.

  41. It’s not the Sun.

  42. Messier Tidy Upper

    “Our Sun’s brightness is gradually increasing by about 10 % every billion years.”
    – McNab, David & Younger, James, ‘The Planets’, BBC Worldwide,1999. & “The Planets” final episode – ‘Destiny” , BBC TV, screened circa 1995-2005.(?)

    So our Sun is actually – like all main-sequence stars getting very gradaully brighter with age. But this is a lo-oong process and NOT, stress the NOT, an explanation for Global Warming which is operating on a much different time factor and has a much different set of climatological signatures.

    There have been suggestions of a new prolonged quiet time before I think? Plus studies of other sun-like yellow dwarfs reveal a number of stars in quiet long lasting “Maunder minimum” phases. Will have to see if I can find an article I vaguely recall reading on this.

    It’s interesting – but certainly NOT an excuse to do nothing AGW~wise. The recent solar mimimum has still seen climbing global average temperatures.

  43. Messier Tidy Upper

    Nobodies posted this clip yet? :

    Now they have – this explains why we know the Sun is NOT behind Global Warming.

    Plus there’s this one :

    again showing the rest of the solar system isn’t warming a sthe BA has also noted in the opening item here.

    Plus we need to look at what the ice cores are telling us as this link :


  44. Messier Tidy Upper

    @12. Gonçalo Aguiar :

    Hmm. So this means global warming will stall for around 10 years? As far as I remember 2008 was one of the most hot years in history and it was during a solar maximum.

    Actually NASA has the records for the hottest years here :

    and it turns out that 2010 ties with 2005 as the hottest year on record.

    The two years differed by less than 0.018 degrees Fahrenheit. The difference is smaller than the uncertainty in comparing the temperatures of recent years, putting them into a statistical tie. In the new analysis, the next warmest years are 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009, which are statistically tied for third warmest year. The GISS records begin in 1880.

    Which means the NASA page here :

    Good as it is, needs updating.

    Wikipedia :

    has a list of recorded solar cyles & notes the current one (24) is unusually quiet and below predictions.

    Hope these links are useful / interesting for folks. :-)

  45. Calli Arcale

    Gonçalo Aguiar:

    Hmm. So this means global warming will stall for around 10 years? As far as I remember 2008 was one of the most hot years in history and it was during a solar maximum.

    No, 2008 was not a solar maximum; the sun was even quieter than it is now. The current maximum has been much delayed already. IIRC, it *should* have been in 2008, but it still hasn’t peaked.

  46. DrFlimmer

    The peak will be in 2013, 2008 was still in the quiet phase. However, the quietness lasted longer than expected….

  47. Bill

    Upon what data do you make the statement that there was an unusually weak jet stream and attribute that to ozone production during the Maunder Minimum? Is there a connection between the two ? In any event, neither phenomena was measured directly until the 20th Century.

  48. aleksandar

    I sometimes really feel like “Little Ice Age” and “Maunder Minimum” will be two things that allowed industrial civilization to happily suicide itself due to uncontrolled climate change. If censorship existed in science those two would warrant to be locked and hidden.

    OMG were are heading for a quite solar cycle which may be sign of possible new Maunder Minimum which maybe had something to do with Little Ice Age, which was maybe global in nature but all signs indicated it was localized phenomenon. Oh well, no need to regulate those carbon emissions now; onward to glorious 1000+ ppm CO2 future. :( very very :(

  49. Wzrd1

    What is funny is, THIS cycle was predicted previously to be a super maximum, as in great Canadian blackout maximum.
    Could this lower level also not be possibly caused by a great number of fields tangled together until they reach a region of lower permissiveness? 😉

  50. czert

    You say that “Sun is not responsible for global warming, as has been shown fairly conclusively”, yet the linked article doesn’t rule out the sun as a cause, it just rules out one particularly clueless theory.

    What you _do_ say there, though, is: “the one thing we need to do is be very, very careful when someone comes in and makes a broad, sweeping statement about global warming’s cause.” Isn’t that exactly what you’ve done just now?

  51. AmandaK

    I personally think that people should take this seriously. There are so many people who seem to be in denial about this, or something like this, happening. I’ve been researching about Solar Flares, EMP, and other things on this topic for a while now and I’ve found good blogs to get tips, advice, and facts from. There is a tv series coming out soon called The Carrington Event. Rob Underhill is the director of it and he’s actually going to be on a blog that I continue to go back to, which is He’s going to be on their radio show live tomorrow at 12 noon. I think it’s going to be great to listen to. Here’s the link if you want to check it out:


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