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April 7, 2013

Dying Sun?

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Is the Sun dead? Probably not, despite news reports to the contrary.

In this case "dead" refers to how "lively" the sun's sunspot activity is. Right now the activity is low.

But when a Japanese solar scientist told an international solar conference that the sun is "dead," news reports emerged and alarms were sounded about the possibility of our dead sun leading to a new little ice age.

Doug Biesecker, Chair of the Solar Cycle Progression and Prediction Panel at NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, isn't buying it. He says the level of solar activity is low, but that "it's really hard to make an argument that the sun is exceptionally quiet."

Solar cycles happen over a period of 11 years. We are currently near the end of one cycle and the start of the next. Biesecker says solar activity is still steadily declining from its peak in 2001, but contrary to some news reports there have been no months with zero sunspots.

He also notes that his panel predicted that a shortage of sunspots, which scientists call a "solar minimum," would happen this year. "We're still in line for that, and really the sun is behaving exactly as we thought it would when we predicted this a year ago," he says, adding, "The current number [of sunspots] is lower than it's been at solar minimum for last couple of cycles, but not by a whole lot."

In fact, he says, "We are seeing new cycle spots already."

But for those who would like to keep tabs on the sunspot count, Biesecker says to keep in mind that the numbers will continue to go down for a several more months. He says that's because the official monthly sunspot figure is actually a "one year smoothed number," meaning the actual monthly count gets fed into a 13-month average which requires data from the six months before and the six months after.

Therefore the most recent official figure available is from November, and the June figure won't be available until January.

"There's always a little bit of a lag, which makes this harder to communicate," says Biesecker.

       email to a friend by Brad Kloza

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