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What's wrong with the Sun ? - --- - 06-23-2010

What's wrong with the sun?

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What's wrong with the sun?

* 14 June 2010 by Stuart Clark

Video: Sun spots

SUNSPOTS come and go, but recently they have mostly gone. For centuries, astronomers have recorded when these dark blemishes on the solar surface emerge, only for them to fade away again after a few days, weeks or months. Thanks to their efforts, we know that sunspot numbers ebb and flow in cycles lasting about 11 years.

But for the past two years, the sunspots have mostly been missing. Their absence, the most prolonged for nearly a hundred years, has taken even seasoned sun watchers by surprise. "This is solar behaviour we haven't seen in living memory," says David Hathaway, a physicist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The sun is under scrutiny as never before thanks to an armada of space telescopes. The results they beam back are portraying our nearest star, and its influence on Earth, in a new light. Sunspots and other clues indicate that the sun's magnetic activity is diminishing, and that the sun may even be shrinking. Together the results hint that something profound is happening inside the sun. The big question is what?

The stakes have never been higher. Groups of sunspots forewarn of gigantic solar storms that can unleash a billion times more energy than an atomic bomb. Fears that these giant solar eruptions could create havoc on EarthMovie Camera, and disputes over the sun's role in climate change, are adding urgency to these studies. When NASA and the European Space Agency launched the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory almost 15 years ago, "understanding the solar cycle was not one of its scientific objectives", says Bernhard Fleck, the mission's project scientist. "Now it is one of the key questions."
Sun behaving badly

Sunspots are windows into the sun's magnetic soul. They form where giant loops of magnetism, generated deep inside the sun, well up and burst through the surface, leading to a localised drop in temperature which we see as a dark patch. Any changes in sunspot numbers reflect changes inside the sun. "During this transition, the sun is giving us a real glimpse into its interior," says Hathaway.

When sunspot numbers drop at the end of each 11-year cycle, solar storms die down and all becomes much calmer. This "solar minimum" doesn't last long. Within a year, the spots and storms begin to build towards a new crescendo, the next solar maximum.

What's special about this latest dip is that the sun is having trouble starting the next solar cycle. The sun began to calm down in late 2007, so no one expected many sunspots in 2008. But computer models predicted that when the spots did return, they would do so in force. Hathaway was reported as thinking the next solar cycle would be a "doozy": more sunspots, more solar storms and more energy blasted into space. Others predicted that it would be the most active solar cycle on record. The trouble was, no one told the sun.
The latest solar cycle was supposed to be the most active on record. The trouble was, no one told the sun

The first sign that the prediction was wrong came when 2008 turned out to be even calmer than expected. That year, the sun was spot-free 73 per cent of the time, an extreme dip even for a solar minimum. Only the minimum of 1913 was more pronounced, with 85 per cent of that year clear.

As 2009 arrived, solar physicists looked for some action. They didn't get it. The sun continued to languish until mid-December, when the largest group of sunspots to emerge for several years appeared. Finally, a return to normal? Not really.

Even with the solar cycle finally under way again, the number of sunspots has so far been well below expectations. Something appears to have changed inside the sun, something the models did not predict. But what?

The flood of observations from space and ground-based telescopes suggests that the answer lies in the behaviour of two vast conveyor belts of gas that endlessly cycle material and magnetism through the sun's interior and out across the surface. On average it takes 40 years for the conveyor belts to complete a circuit (see diagram).

When Hathaway's team looked over the observations to find out where their models had gone wrong, they noticed that the conveyor-belt flows of gas across the sun's surface have been speeding up since 2004.

The circulation deep within the sun tells a different story. Rachel Howe and Frank Hill of the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, have used observations of surface disturbances, caused by the solar equivalent of seismic waves, to infer what conditions are like within the sun. Analysing data from 2009, they found that while the surface flows had sped up, the internal ones had slowed to a crawl.

These findings have thrown our best computer models of the sun into disarray. "It is certainly challenging our theories," says Hathaway, "but that's kinda nice."

It is not just our understanding of the sun that stands to benefit from this work. The extent to which changes in the sun's activity can affect our climate is of paramount concern. It is also highly controversial. There are those who seek to prove that the solar variability is the major cause of climate change, an idea that would let humans and their greenhouse gases off the hook. Others are equally evangelical in their assertions that the sun plays only a minuscule role in climate change.

If this dispute could be resolved by an experiment, the obvious strategy would be to see what happens when you switch off one potential cause of climate change and leave the other alone. The extended collapse in solar activity these past two years may be precisely the right sort of test, in that it has significantly changed the amount of solar radiation bombarding our planet. "As a natural experiment, this is the very best thing to happen," says Joanna Haigh, a climatologist at Imperial College London. "Now we have to see how the Earth responds."
The climate link

Mike Lockwood at the University of Reading, UK, may already have identified one response - the unusually frigid European winter of 2009/10. He has studied records covering data stretching back to 1650, and found that severe European winters are much more likely during periods of low solar activity (New Scientist, 17 April, p 6). This fits an emerging picture of solar activity giving rise to a small change in the global climate overall, yet large regional effects.

Another example is the Maunder minimum, the period from 1645 to 1715 during which sunspots virtually disappeared and solar activity plummeted. If a similar spell of solar inactivity were to begin now and continue until 2100, it would mitigate any temperature rise through global warming by 0.3 °C on average, according to calculations by Georg Feulner and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. However, something amplified the impact of the Maunder minimum on northern Europe, ushering in a period known as the Little Ice Age, when colder than average winters became more prevalent and the average temperature in Europe appeared to drop by between 1 and 2 °C.

A corresponding boost appears to be associated with peaks in solar output. In 2008, Judith Lean of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC published a study showing that high solar activity has a disproportionate warming influence on northern Europe (Geophysical Research Letters, vol 35, p L18701).

So why does solar activity have these effects? Modellers may already be onto the answer. Since 2003, spaceborne instruments have been measuring the intensity of the sun's output at various wavelengths and looking for correlations with solar activity. The results point to the sun's emissions of ultraviolet light. "The ultraviolet is varying much, much, much more than we expected," says Lockwood.

Ultraviolet light is strongly linked to solar activity: solar flares shine brightly in the ultraviolet, and it helps carry the explosive energy of the flares away into space. It could be particularly significant for the Earth's climate as ultraviolet light is absorbed by the ozone layer in the stratosphere, the region of atmosphere that sits directly above the weather-bearing troposphere.

More ultraviolet light reaching the stratosphere means more ozone is formed. And more ozone leads to the stratosphere absorbing more ultraviolet light. So in times of heightened solar activity, the stratosphere heats up and this influences the winds in that layer. "The heat input into the stratosphere is much more variable than we thought," says Lockwood.

Enhanced heating of the stratosphere could be behind the heightened effects felt by Europe of changes in solar activity. Back in 1996, Haigh showed that the temperature of the stratosphere influences the passage of the jet stream, the high-altitude river of air passing from west to east across Europe.

Lockwood's latest study shows that when solar activity is low, the jet stream becomes liable to break up into giant meanders that block warm westerly winds from reaching Europe, allowing Arctic winds from Siberia to dominate Europe's weather.

The lesson for climate research is clear. "There are so many weather stations in Europe that, if we are not careful, these solar effects could influence our global averages," says Lockwood. In other words, our understanding of global climate change could be skewed by not taking into account solar effects on European weather.

Just as one mystery begins to clear, another beckons. Since its launch 15 years ago, the SOHO spacecraft has watched two solar minimums, one complete solar cycle, and parts of two other cycles - the one that ended in 1996 and the one that is just stirring. For all that time its VIRGO instrument has been measuring the total solar irradiance (TSI), the energy emitted by the sun. Its measurements can be stitched together with results from earlier missions to provide a 30-year record of the sun's energy output. What this shows is that during the latest solar minimum, the sun's output was 0.015 per cent lower than during the previous lull. It might not sound like much, but it is a hugely significant result.

We used to think that the sun's output was unwavering. That view began to change following the launch in 1980 of NASA's Solar Maximum Mission. Its observations show that the amount of energy the sun puts out varies by around 0.1 per cent over a period of days or weeks over a solar cycle.
Shrinking star

Despite this variation, the TSI has dipped to the same level during the three previous solar minima. Not so during this recent elongated minimum. Although the observed drop is small, the fact that it has happened at all is unprecedented. "This is the first time we have measured a long-term trend in the total solar irradiance," says Claus Fröhlich of the World Radiation Centre in Davos, Switzerland, and lead investigator for the VIRGO instrument.

If the sun's energy output is changing, then its temperature must be fluctuating too. While solar flares can heat up the gas at the surface, changes in the sun's core would have a more important influence on temperature, though calculations show it can take hundreds of thousands of years for the effects to percolate out to the surface. Whatever the mechanism, the cooler the surface, the less energy there is to "puff up" the sun. The upshot of any dip in the sun's output is that the sun should also be shrinking.

Observations suggest that it is - though we needn't fear a catastrophe like that depicted in the movie Sunshine just yet. Back in the 17th century French astronomer Jean Picard made his mark by measuring the sun's diameter. His observations were carried out during the Maunder minimum, and he obtained a result larger than modern measurements. Was this simply because of an error on Picard's part, or could the sun genuinely have shrunk since then? "There has been a lot of animated discussion, and the problem is not yet solved," says Gérard Thuillier of the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris, France.
Any dip in the sun's output means that the sun is shrinking. Observations suggest that it is, though they are controversial

Observations with ground-based telescopes are not precise enough to resolve the question, due to the distorting effect of Earth's atmosphere. So the French space agency has designed a mission, aptly named Picard, to return precise measurements of the sun's diameter and look for changes.

Frustratingly the launch, on a Russian Dnepr rocket, is mired in a political disagreement between Russia and neighbouring Kazakhstan. Until the dispute is resolved, the spacecraft must wait. Every day of delay means valuable data being missed as the sun takes steps, however faltering, into the next cycle of activity. "We need to launch now," says Thuillier.

What the sun will do next is beyond our ability to predict. Most astronomers think that the solar cycle will proceed, but at significantly depressed levels of activity similar to those last seen in the 19th century. However, there is also evidence that the sun is inexorably losing its ability to produce sunspots (see "The sunspot forecast"). By 2015, they could be gone altogether, plunging us into a new Maunder minimum - and perhaps a new Little Ice Age.

Of course, solar activity is just one natural source of climate variability. Volcanic eruptions are another, spewing gas and dust into the atmosphere. Nevertheless, it remains crucial to understand the precise changeability of the sun, and the way it influences the various regional patterns of weather on Earth. Climate scientists will then be able to correct for these effects, not just in interpreting modern measurements but also when attempting to reconstruct the climate stretching back centuries. It is only by doing so that we can reach an unassailable consensus about the sun's true level of influence on the Earth and its climate.
266 days without sunspots in 2008
18 billion tonnes of matter thrown into space by a coronal mass ejection
The sunspot forecast

Although sunspots are making a belated comeback after the protracted solar minimum, the signs are that all is not well. For decades, William Livingston at the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, has been measuring the strength of the magnetic fields which puncture the sun's surface and cause the spots to develop. Last year, he and colleague Matt Penn pointed out that the average strength of sunspot magnetic fields has been sliding dramatically since 1995.

If the trend continues, in just five years the field will have slipped below the threshold magnetic field needed for sunspots to form.

How likely is this to happen? Mike Lockwood at the University of Reading, UK, has scoured historical data to look for similar periods of solar inactivity, which show up as increases in the occurrence of certain isotopes in ice cores and tree rings. He found 24 such instances in the last few thousand years. On two of those occasions, sunspots all but disappeared for decades. Lockwood puts the chance of this happening now at just 8 per cent.

Only on one occasion did the sunspot number bounce back to record levels. In the majority of cases, the sun continued producing spots albeit at significantly depressed levels. It seems that the sunspot bonanza of last century is over.

Stuart Clark's latest book is The Sun Kings (Princeton). He blogs at

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - h3rm35 - 06-24-2010

wrong link.

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - icosaface - 06-24-2010

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - Deathaniel - 06-24-2010

or more likely the sun is responding to the other two massive gravitational pulls of the center of the galaxy and / or the massive planet/ dwarf star known famously as Nebru Icon_biggrin

it's still low key but more unexplained earth quakes and other obvious external effects should be soon to be out in the open. NASA knows just doesn't want people to know, they'd stop goin to work and being good boys and girls... one good flare towards us and it's either lights out 1800's here we go and the sheeple over here in North America can't handle that lol, or were all cooked those not in 6 mile deep bunkers and then they too die out from starvation as our planet looks like mars and loses it's atmosphere. All burned up.... we're a speck rotating around the sun for perspective....

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - icosaface - 06-24-2010

Deathanyl said:
"it's still low key but more unexplained earth quakes and other obvious external effects should be soon to be out in the open. "

Huh? Elaborate on the unexplained eartquakes and other obvious external effects.

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - Deathaniel - 06-24-2010

(06-24-2010, 02:04 PM)icosaface Wrote: Deathanyl said:
"it's still low key but more unexplained earth quakes and other obvious external effects should be soon to be out in the open. "

Huh? Elaborate on the unexplained eartquakes and other obvious external effects.

earthquake activity has been on the rise in past 8mths to a year & the moon's orbit has changed position twice, and hundreds of satellites have had to have course corrections as there is differences in the gravitational pull of all these objects from something out in space. now southern hemisphere folks (none i personally know yet) say they can see the object as a red star in the morning/ or dusk sky. this being nebru, (google the planet and remember believe only 1/2 of the guess work since only Nasa and the vatican know for sure) Nebru has a few moons planet size and it reported to be much much bigger then us.

this is why AZ lost a mountain to Rome, and why so much money is being put into seeing whats out thee now as I'm sure the NWO has plans to try and survive what ever it does to us from minor shit like tsunami's and earth quakes to massive volcanic eruptions and a volcanic ash winter/ loss of the sun's light.

now for those who debate the planets existence fine i can admit it MAY not be as bad as what i suggest, but then theres also the pull from the gravitational well at the center of the galaxy, and no one denies this is happening end of 2012, what we all argue about is how it will affect earth, we just don't know but one thing the NWO doesn't control is space, and what happens out there, so it's best to be prepared.

with a liquid core and a rotation were very vulnerable to outside interference and an adjustment of our orbit by even a few hundred km's/ miles would have devastating effects or a polar shift!!! all very possible from either event if they affect us in the middle ground of effects, on the low end it's just increased activity of volcano's and Teutonic plates, at worse it's an ELE event!

i have known of the possible issues with 2012 for over 15 years ad have planed a good chunk of my existence around making sure i survive and my fam after wards unless we die in the events. most sheeple will just perish. I'm not saying aramgeddon, but it could be!

for the record to explain un explained earthquakes is when you have them in areas whats don't normally have them or when they r very strong, as 8's and up can affect our rotation. if there r any other scientific folks out thee who can refute me i'm glad to hear any evidence, but i'm VERY well read on this and so am firm in what I'm saying is a true warning!

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - Valentine - 06-25-2010

There was a pretty good explanation of how a brown dwarf companion orbiting Sol would effect our solar system on some program I was watching. Sorry I can't remember the name right now but will ask others I was watching it with. Do you think that could be Nebru/Niburu?

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - Deathaniel - 06-25-2010

(06-25-2010, 12:33 AM)Valentine Wrote: There was a pretty good explanation of how a brown dwarf companion orbiting Sol would effect our solar system on some program I was watching. Sorry I can't remember the name right now but will ask others I was watching it with. Do you think that could be Nebru/Niburu?

could be and we'll all know by mid dec this year/ late jan next as it will then be closer and in proper alignment for us in the northern hemisphere to see it as it's entering from a southern direction from the outer to the inner, wither it will go between us and the sun or if we will be between it and the sun I'm not sure but some positions are definite death for us all and others r just messing us up. either way though it has moons and if any of them hit us or our moon (a former remnant from a past fly by hence the moon is rock unlike any other planetary object in your solar system...) we're fuct... so with things in the sky beyond NWO control i guess i'm planning for the real beast...

other names for nebru/ niburu is planet x, there is a good short film explaining the position of the planet to our sun at and how it will affect us, good for the entry level layman on cosmology.

and any normal orbit pattern will be skewed hence they r not knowing exactly where it will pass, as the center of the galaxy and our own sun will affect it's orbit pattern, maybe affecting ours also Sad

RE: What's wrong with the Sun ? - Valentine - 06-25-2010

I think I may have been watching that new science series with Morgan Freeman narrating. Anyway, here's a paper that was published in April of this year.

If this thing is travelling with its own planetary system it's no wonder there could've been a massive collision on one of its passes.