NASA says the Sun is “tangled up in blue”

By Tom Yulsman | May 4, 2018 10:59 am

A bright tangle of magnetic field lines has appeared on its surface. But otherwise the Sun is singularly serene. What’s going on?

Tangled up in blue

View of the Sun from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory

The other day, NASA posted this closeup view of the Sun under the headline: “Tangled Up in Blue.”

The reference to the Bob Dylan tune aside, I found the video particularly intriguing. That’s because the Sun’s surface, as imaged here by the Solar Dynamics Observatory spacecraft, is actually quite placid. But there’s one exception: a very bright active region, seen as a tangle of bright filaments tracing out magnetic field lines emerging from the Sun’s surface.

When the Sun is in a more active part of its 11-year cycle, you’re likely to see more active regions like this. These are areas that roil with gargantuan filaments, loops, and prominences formed from unimaginably hot plasma levitated by magnetic fields.

Sometimes, radiation will blast outwards from the Sun’s surface. These solar flares, a million times more energetic than volcanic eruptions on Earth, often are accompanied by enormous explosions of plasma. Such coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, propel a billion tons of material outward at hundreds of miles per second.

Yet here, the SDO spacecraft shows the Sun in a serene state — except for that one active region.

Here’s how NASA describes what we’re looking at:

The lone active region visible on the sun put on a fine display with its tangled magnetic field lines swaying and twisting above it (Apr.24-26, 2018) when viewed in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. The charged particles spinning along these field lines illuminate them. The region did not erupt with any significant solar storms, although it still might.

In addition to experiencing a dearth of filaments, loops, prominences, flares and ejections, the Sun has been going naked lately, losing all of its spots at times. As I pointed out in a post back in February:

Spotless periods . . . are common as the Sun approaches the low point in its 11-year solar cycle. We’re headed for that minimum next year.

The Sun reached a peak in activity during 2014. It turned out to be the weakest maximum in solar activity since 1906. Solar activity has since been declining and will soon bottom out. There are indications that this upcoming solar minimum could be particularly deep.

The Sun’s 11-year cycles of rising and falling activity are usually fairly regular. But much longer variations can occur. One example, known as the Maunder Minimum, occurred between 1645 and 1715. During this period, the Sun experienced a very prolonged spell of low solar activity.

According to recent research, a continuing decline in solar activity is occurring faster than any other in more than 9,300 years. This points toward a 15 to 20 percent chance of a return to conditions similar to the Maunder Minimum.

You’ll often hear claims that if we head into a long-lasting period similar to that, it will help neutralize human-caused global warming. That’s because the amount of solar radiation reaching Earth during low solar activity periods is reduced. But the research shows something else.

The Maunder Minimum was indeed associated with cold European winters. But it did not have as big an effect on the global climate overall.

Looking forward in time, studies suggest that an extended Maunder-Minimum-like period during this century would produce similar results — cold winters in Eurasia, but much less of a global impact.

Modeling shows that if emissions of climate-warming greenhouse gases continue unabated, temperatures could rise 4 degrees C above preindustrial levels by the end of the century. At the same time, several studies have shown that human-caused global warming would be offset by no more than about 0.2°C in the year 2100 by a Maunder-Minimum-like episode.

  • kapnlogos

    Never miss a chance to throw in a ‘climate warming’ reference. While you’re at it why not throw in Trump Russian Collusion? My point is to leave the politics out of scientific discussions.

    • Erik Bosma

      It appears to me that you are the one who can’t take politics out of scientific discussions.

      • Pácskaany

        Tu quoque.

  • TLongmire

    “The Sun reached a peak in activity during 2014. It turned out to be the weakest maximum in solar activity since 1906. Solar activity has since been declining and will soon bottom out. There are indications that this upcoming solar minimum could be particularly deep”. We are in a hyperdementional gyroscopic sphere of shared energy where if this than opposed is given. This phenomenon has absolutely nothing to due with Hawaiian eruption.

  • Matthew Edwards

    Keep telling yourselves that.
    Just wait.
    We are all about to find out just how insignificant man, and his activities are, in the face of the sun itself.

    • Dennis Nagel

      You haven’t met the scientists at cern and fermilabs if that’s your opinion.

      • Matthew Edwards

        Do you know what a particle accelerator is?
        Go learn.

        • Dennis Nagel

          Pull your cranium out of your posterior and actually examine the effects of using that device. Do you REALLY know what an accelerator is? Go Learn!

  • Mike Richardson

    It’s important to point out the limited nature of the so-called “Little Ice Age” attributed to the Maunder-Minimum. As noted in the article, the effects seem limited primarily to Europe, but did not produce a substantial cooling planet wide. Certainly nothing approaching the mildest of the ice ages during human prehistory. Yet some are quick to claim climate change due to human activity will be erased, or even replaced by a mini ice age, once the next episode of minimum solar activity occurs. The evidence from world history strongly disputes that. Our sun is without doubt the single greatest force impacting the global climate, but it is a remarkably stable star — which is why we’re all here to have this conversation. Nothing in recorded history suggests solar energy output will change drastically enough in the foreseeable future to overwhelm the impact humanity’s massive input of greenhouse gases is having on our world.

    • socalpa

      No ,the effects of the LIA were not limited to Europe . They were global in extent ,just most documented in Europe .
      Global ocean studies show ~ 1C cooling 1300 1650 .. both hemispheres.
      See Oceans 2k 2015 ,Rosenthal et al 2013 .
      The undetermined but assumed human impact on GAST is about to get a whole new review . .

      • Mike Richardson

        The actual effects on land are much less clear, and Rosenthal ‘s overall work supports the fact that the oceans are warming more quickly now than in the past, driven by AGW.

        • socalpa

          Well , the effects on land are actually quite clear . Warmer sea surfaces in particular cause warmer and moister conditions on land ,without exception . See effects of ENSO . AMO and PDO phases.
          The point was both studies agree on global MWP and LIA , both studies agree on temps at 1100 AD and 1700 AD .
          The rate of warming for the top 2,000 ms of the oceans is ~ 0.2C century . several centuries till MWP temps are matched .

          • Mike Richardson

            That’s a lot of acronyms, and still no actual proof that current warming is natural, or that the vast majority of scientists who blame it on carbon emissions are incorrect.

          • socalpa

            I see you want to change the subject from the MWP and the LIA to current warming ? I don’t blame you !
            The claim that current warming is not natural is the claim that requires “proof” .
            In science , the null is assumed correct absent conclusive and indisputable evidence the null hypothesis is wrong or invalid.
            In the instant case ,no such evidence exists .,regardless of the number of scientists that support the CO2 explanation for post 1950 temps .

          • Mike Richardson

            Good thing there’s actually a ton of proof in the form of research and observation, which is why the scientific consensus is that it isn’t natural. So your contrarian position does require proof, and not just your strident assertion.

          • socalpa

            If you knew anything about science ,you would know the word “proof” does not apply .
            “Proof” is used in math and logic . and “consensus” does not confer or imply validity to a theory or hypothesis . .
            I suggest you look into the Continental Drift controversy ,the 99% consensus of last century was that the continents were “fixed” , and the “ton of proof” explained the matching coasts , strata and fossils as a “co incidence” .
            An error that lasted over 50 years ,until about 1970 .
            Pleased you have dropped the no global MWP or LIA claims .. some progress ,but ,you have far to go ..

          • classicalmusiclover

            It is interesting that the very kinds of technology that finally provided hard evidence and confirmation for Wegener’s idea and posthumous vindication have also enabled modern climate science to know things about the earth’s climate to a high degree of confidence–things that you and your fellow climate science dismissives like to pretend don’t exist.

            Of course, comparing the state of “consensus” in paleo-geology of over a century ago, where there were only a tiny handful of researchers, to modern climate science today, with thousands of researchers availed of massive amounts of satellite data and field data gathered from the most remote parts of the earth, is the height of apples-to-oranges absurdity.

            And your leap from a correct statement about “proof” to an insinuation that “consensus” is a meaningless term is worthy of your most wildly dishonest prestidigitations.

          • classicalmusiclover

            So, Richard Muller’s research was wrong when he found the strongest correlation to modern warming in anthropogenic CO2? It’s curious how you view his non-peer-reviewed and baldly incorrect opinions about Mann as definitive but dismiss his actual research.

            Claiming that “no such evidence exists” for the overwhelming consensus view of active research scientists is the height of ignorance.

          • classicalmusiclover

            “warmer and moister conditions on land ,without exception”
            –except where warmer temperatures intensify drought and reduce availability of water, as has happened in several hot spots around the globe.

            Your little “without exception” is where you fall apart, dimwit.

  • Tam Hunt

    There’s actually good research showing a very consistent temperature signal mapping against past solar minimums — not just the Maunder Minimum. We’re seeing more and more data suggesting that we’re heading into a new minimum but I don’t think anyone at this point knows how serious a drop in solar forcing this will produce. The good news is that a lot of people are starting to look at this issue more seriously and searching for ways to project more accurately expected changes in solar forcing.

  • Jose

    You may want to purchase some property near Presidio, Texas, which is often the hottest reported city in North America. For some strange reason it is also the longest continuously inhabited area in North America.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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