Sun Ignores Scientists' Predictions

NASA says that something unexpected is happening on the Sun.  This year, 2013, is supposed to be the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle—the year of Solar Max. Yet solar activity is well below the expected level. Out somnolent star refuses to behave according to the predictions of Sun watching scientists, leading some observers to wonder if forecasters missed the mark. The botched solar forecast not only has implication for our understanding of the physical processes inside the Sun, it has possible links to future climate change here on Earth. Scientists admit that no one knows for sure what the Sun will do next.

The 11 year solar cycle—the waxing and waning of activity on the Sun—is well known, if not well understood. The solar cycle is the periodic change in the Sun's activity, including changes in levels of solar radiation and the ejection of solar material. Solar cycles have been observed for hundreds of years by earthbound observers noting changes in the sun's appearance. Generations of scientists have kept detailed records of changes in the number of sunspots, flares, and other visible manifestations. Changes in solar activity affects space weather, which can be important when launching satellites. It can also impact conditions here on Earth, adversely affecting communications, radio broadcasts and power grids. For these reasons, forecasting the solar cycle is not just an idle pursuit for Sun gazing scientists.

A number of techniques are used to predict the timing and amplitude of a cycle, often involving observations made just prior to a sunspot minimum. Relationships have been found between the size of the next cycle maximum and the length of the previous cycle, the level of activity at sunspot minimum, and the magnitude of the previous cycle. Among the most reliable prediction techniques use observed changes in Earth's magnetic field, taken during and before a sunspot minimum. Solar storms cause changes in the Earth's magnetic field but the precise connections between them and future solar activity levels remains uncertain. Using these techniques and others, a panel of solar experts made a prediction about the expected peak for Solar Cycle 24.

May 8, 2009 — The Solar Cycle 24 Prediction Panel has reached a consensus decision on the prediction of the next solar cycle (Cycle 24). First, the panel has agreed that solar minimum occurred in December, 2008. This still qualifies as a prediction since the smoothed sunspot number is only valid through September, 2008. The panel has decided that the next solar cycle will be below average in intensity, with a maximum sunspot number of 90. Given the predicted date of solar minimum and the predicted maximum intensity, solar maximum is now expected to occur in May, 2013. Note, this is a consensus opinion, not a unanimous decision. A supermajority of the panel did agree to this prediction.

Once again, scientific consensus proves its fallibility. We are currently over four years into Cycle 24. The current predicted and observed size makes this the smallest sunspot cycle since Cycle 14 which had a maximum of 64.2 in February of 1906. Even so, the weak early peak and subsequent trailing off of activity has solar scientists scrambling to revise their forecasts. Activity to date is shown in the plot below.

The early peak and shortfall in activity can easily be seen in the sunspot record shown in the plot. The panel's prediction of a May 2013 peak was made during the deepest minimum in nearly a hundred years, with sunspot numbers near zero and x-ray flare activity flat-lined for months at a time.  Recognizing that deep minima are often followed by weak maxima, a wimpy maximum was expected, but not quite this wimpy. Given the lack of solar activity in February 2013, a maximum in May now seems unlikely.

Solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center notes that the Sun has been acting a bit contrary in recent cycles. “The last two solar maxima, around 1989 and 2001, had not one but two peaks,” he reports on a NASA website. Solar activity went up, dipped, then resumed, performing a mini-cycle that lasted about two years. Indeed, sunspot counts jumped in 2011, dipped in 2012, and Pesnell is now betting that the same thing could be happening again.

“This is solar maximum,” he says. “But it looks different from what we expected because it is double peaked. I am comfortable in saying that another peak will happen in 2013 and possibly last into 2014.”

On longer than decadal time scales, the Sun has shown considerable variability, that variability often correlating with century long trends in Earth's climate. These periods include the long Maunder Minimum, when almost no sunspots were observed, the less severe Dalton Minimum, and the increased sunspot activity during the last fifty years known as the Modern Maximum. The causes for these variations are not well understood, but because sunspots affect the brightness of the sun, solar luminosity is lower during periods of low sunspot activity. It is widely believed that the lack of solar activity during the Maunder Minimum and earlier periods may be among the principal causes of the Little Ice Age.

The Modern Maximum is between 1900 and 1950, and levels have remained fairly high until recent years. Given that climate cannot change instantaneously with changes in solar output—temperature change has a time lagged correlation—the link between solar activity and the modest global temperature increase during the 20th century seems obvious. Given that the Sun powers practically all life on Earth and drives the planetary climate engine the question has to be asked, why did the IPCC climate change alarmists try to attribute the increase to CO2?

Granted, four centuries is not a long time in the grand sweep of things and reliable sunspot observations are not available for ancient times. Fortunately, taking a page from other historical climate studies, there are proxy data that can extend our view into the past correlation of solar activity and climate change. That proxy is 14C, carbon-14. This is the same isotope of carbon that makes dating organic substances possible. This is because 14C is created by cosmic rays and has a relativity short half-life ( years). The concentration of 14C present in the atmosphere depends inversely on the intensity of solar activity* [See comment below], so historical concentrations are an indicator of solar activity. A plot of historical levels for the past 1100 years are shown below.

Again, the fluctuation in solar activity correlates well with known historical periods of both warm and cold climate conditions. This shows that the major driver of earthly climate is the Sun. That's the good news. The bad news is that, as was seen at the start of this article, scientists are not able to accurately predict the Sun's activity, whether on a decadal scale or longer. Sadly, because of uncertainly in the Sun's activity global warming fearmongers can continue to play the “we are all doomed” game every time a warm spell strikes somewhere on Earth. But sooner or later that will catch up with them, because we cannot predict what the Sun is going to do, and we certainly cannot control it.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

Sun Ignores Scientists' Predictions

Scientists all agree that NASA is correct and that the sun is clearly wrong.

big mistake

"That proxy is 14C, carbon-14. This is the same isotope of carbon that makes dating organic substances possible. This is because 14C is created by sunshine and has a relativity short half-life ( years)."

14C isn't a proxy for sunlight, it's a proxy for galactic cosmic ray (GCR) flux. It's related to sunspots because when the sun is energetic (like when there are many sunspots), the increased magnetic field and solar wind shields the planets from the high energy GCR that create 14C, or radiocarbon, from 14N in the upper atmosphere. Incident GCR also varies *much* more slowly with our position in galaxy.

Your figure showing 14C over time is an inverted 14C scale. Higher means less 14C, lower means more 14C.

Read "Celestial driver of phanerozoic climate?" by Shaviv & Veizer (2003) and the Cosmoclimatology article by Henrik Svensmark (2007), both of which are available online. The popular treatment by Calder with Svensmark in "The Chilling Stars" might be another choice to brush up on the science.

The theory that's been gaining credibility for well over a decade (getting Svensmark a denouncement from a prior IPCC chair as being "naive and irresponsible") is that a less energetic sun means more incident GCR creating more 14C and more low clouds through ion production in the lower atmosphere by the GCR cascades. More low clouds means less sunlight reaching the land and seas. More energetic sun means fewer GCR, less 14C, fewer clouds and more sunlight reacing the ground and seas. It isn't a huge amount of difference, but it does appear to add up.

Mea culpa

Yes, your are correct—I should have checked my facts before posting. This is what happens when one plays fast and loose with the background information. To quote from the ultimate source of all knowledge (Wikipedia):

Carbon-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic ray bombardment of atmospheric nitrogen (14N) induces the Nitrogen to undergo β+ decay, thus transforming into an unusual isotope of carbon with an atomic weight of 14 rather than the more common 12. Because cosmic rays are partially excluded from the Solar System by the outward sweep of magnetic fields in the solar wind, increased solar activity results in a reduction of cosmic rays reaching the Earth's atmosphere and thus reduces 14C production. Thus the cosmic ray intensity and carbon-14 production vary inversely to the general level of solar activity.

If I was totally disingenuous, I would claim that my misstatement above was actually a teaching tool or a way to check if anyone out there was paying attention (I had a Professor who used this ploy often). Thanks for keeping me honest.

[ Note that I have corrected the main text so as not to unduly confuse readers. ]

Solar Cycle prediction

High Doug, I do like your website and read the article about relative temperatures on Mars with great interest. As a mining engineer that studied ventilation and has a certain understanding of moving air around, I cannot understand the meaningless preoccupation with a scalar number like temperature. In the absence of quoting the pressure and the humidity level - dew point - of a body of air, the temperature is meaningless. You cannot calculate the heat content without knowing more parameters than just temperature.

But, to get to this article. I had a look at the sunspot numbers. I downloaded the daily sunspots up to the end of January this year and created my own plots. I can see how NASA and all the astrophysics guys calculate the curves that they fit, using a moving average, and can indeed replicate it myself. However, it is my contention that using the moving average curve fitting method, they will keep missing the pot. Since the sunspot cycle is an engineering wave, engineering methods to calculate the shape of the curve yield different results with an earlier peak. I am talking about using LOESS; description in Wikipedia. If can forward you some plots in pdf format for you to have a look at if you interested.

Curve Fit

I have often wondered why this "averaging" B/S with data. The number of sunspots is a RANDOM occurrence, like the throw of a pair of dice, and it does have a periodic nature to it from factors we (including the so called experts) do not yet comprehend. For those with access to a radioactive source sample an a counter, place the detector near the source and then electronically record the counts per second for a period of a few weeks. You will notice that that source also has peaks, valleys, flat spots, and even what looks like a "normal" period." Don't have that equipment? then use dice, you will get a similar result. Don't ask me why or even how. I have a BS in Math (applied NOT theoretical) and I am just someone that has observed it. I would think that a Fourier or Laplace transform or some other would give a more meaningful representation/information of the data.

Why alarmists try to blame CO2.

You ask: "Given that the Sun powers practically all life on Earth and drives the planetary climate engine the question has to be asked, why did the IPCC climate change alarmists try to attribute the increase to CO2?"

Like all great religions, environmentalism thrives on promoting the idea of collective human guilt. They haven't found a way to blame humanity for fewer sunspots.... yet. But they probably will find a way.

Solar cycles and carbon-14

Isn't it a bit early to call the forecast "botched"? We're not even at the maximum yet, and as you say there may be a double peak, and that short-term oscillation isn't yet completely understood. We don't have very much of the smoothed trend available yet, but what there is follows the predicted intensity pretty well; as your graph shows, it also deviated from the sinusoidal in 2001.

What I'm curious about is your suggestion that carbon-14 "is created by sunshine and has a relativity [sic] short half-life ( years)". I expect that wasn't what you meant to say. A photon of sunlight would be not nearly energetic enough to participate in nuclear interactions. It's the change in the solar wind that allows fewer cosmic rays to reach the atmosphere and so more sunspots roughly correlate with lower 14C at a given time, hence the negative scale on the graph you use. And the half-life is around 5800 years.

I'm not clear on what you base "the major driver of earthly climate is the Sun". If you are suggesting that observed climate change from 1880 is owing to the amplitude of solar maxima, you should have some explanation for why the relatively fast rise in global mean temperature since the mid-1980s is coupled with a fall in solar activity over the same time (which would mean less insolation, and more cosmic rays meaning higher albedo from clouds and lower temperatures).

You ask "why did the IPCC climate change alarmists try to attribute the increase to CO2?" My suggestion is that you read the IPCC WG1 reports. There you will see graphs of expected effects solely from natural sources such as solar activity and volcanoes, solely from greenhouse gases, and the combined effect. It should be clear from that that the best fit is the combined effect, and while solar ups and downs had some role, particularly in the early 20th century, the upward trend is owing to enhanced greenhouse effects from anthropogenic sources.

What fall in in solar activity in mid-1980s?

The sunspot numbers were a maximum of 160 in 1982 and 1982 with a drop to about 150 in 2001. Looking at the graphics published on line by the Belgium Royal Observatory, for the period 1700 to 2010, reveals that average solar activity was, contrary to your above statement, high during the period 1980 to 2001.

Solar activity was lower in 1972 corresponding with lower temperatures and flooding in the Great Lakes region. High sunspot activity in 1960 corresponded to drought and low Great Lakes levels. With the current low sunspot activity, mean temperatures have fallen, But Great Lakes levels have not yet recovered.
Don Farley Gatineau Quebec Canada

It is Mann made

The warming prior to the mid 20th century is due entirely to natural factors, solar variation being the primary driver.

The warming since then is entirely Mann made, and Hanson made, and Trenberth made and Jones made and Briffa made and,... well, you get the point.

The warming your referring to is an exercise in making the data fit the model. That's what keeps the money flowing in the climate industry.

Google it

Do a search of NASA predictions for this solar cycle and you quickly see that they completely and utterly got it wrong. The latest graph of their prediction is a story of constantly having to rewrite their own predictions. Their predictions are so bad, they're not predictions. They have basically no predictive power.

2009 forecast was a patch job

Here's a link to an earlier forecast. The peak they were so arrogantly sure of was spectacularly wrong.

You need to catchup

I always love it when a noobie comes to the site. It is NASA saying that they botched the forecast on their own web site, not using that word but their meaning is clear. This is called getting out ahead of the story in spin-control circles. Why the Sun is a major driver of climate has been talked about in detail in a number of my older columns, use the site search. As for reading the IPCC reports, I have. You need to read The Resilient Earth. The Resilient Earth presents the science behind global warming for a general audience, separating fact from fiction and truth from exaggeration. In it you will find why the IPCC reports are so much politically motivated, inconclusive hooey.

"catch up"

In that case, unfortunately I don't think you've fully understood them.

To Don Farley: yes, my point was that solar activity and intensity of cycles has not increased since the mid 1980s, but global mean temp has, by about 0.4 K during the same period. That would have been a problem for people like Soon and Baliunas were they taken seriously. More detail at

To Doug: I don't see how you say NASA say they botched the forecast. The page you linked to says "The quiet has led some observers to wonder if forecasters missed the mark. Solar physicist Dean Pesnell of the Goddard Space Flight Center has a different explanation:" followed by his explanation. That is actually a denial that they botched it. My point there was that you are premature in making a judgement, and would need to wait 3 or 7 years to be able to assess the performance of NASA's earlier prediction and Pesnell's current statements. Perhaps you could make a note to revisit the subject publicly in 2016, and then we can also assess your judgement, and whether this is the solar max and we are entering another minimum?

You might want to look at the last sentence of for a warning about extrapolations of solar activity before records began. It is indeed a place where the IPCC has hitherto been cautious and "inconclusive". More research into cosmic ray seeding would also be useful, but it doesn't look like it's going to be a significant factor at the moment (currently rated as "very low").

On solar vs human-made forcing, the graphs I was thinking of may have been in AR3, but here is the kind of thing I meant and

Hope that helps.

AGW talking points

We see in the above post by the AGW apostle a few typical global warming (aka "climate change") talking points. It is entertaining to see the True Believers trot out the same old AGW distortions. They are seldom interested in real-world data based on observation and experimentation (especially if the data contradicts their pet theory). Instead, they worship manufactured model-based projections and something called "consensus."