Ecclesiastes 3:1 says: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” When people read this, or read about seasons in general, I would imagine that most immediately think of the changes of seasons associated with our climate. Most do not think of the sun, except in that it seems to be much more visible here during the warm months! However, the sun has seasons, or cycles, just like we do here on earth and these can have a large effect on us. One cycle that is most readily observed is that of sunspots. These spots are regions of lower temperature and highly intense magnetic activity that move around on the surface of the sun – sometimes there are more, sometimes less of them. They can be much larger than the diameter of the earth. The spots sometimes erupt into solar flares, or coronal mass ejections, both of which can have effects on our highly delicate modern technology – particularly satellites of all kinds and our power grid – because they cause intense magnetic fields to form around the earth. These fields also cause the aurora borealis or northern lights. Periods of high sunspot activity coincide with periods of the northern lights being much more active and visible in a much greater region than their normal haunts in the Polar Regions. During high solar spot activity the northern lights have been seen as far south as Mexico!
Galileo was the first European to observe sunspots in 1610. After observing the spots for a number of years it was determined that they have a cycle of approximately 11 years where the spot activity increases and then decreases so that about every 11 years there is a peak in this activity. The year 2001 was a particularly high peak. However, the next peak – which should occur around 2012 – is showing signs of being even more severe. We have just reached the solar minimum with a serious reduction in the number of sunspots – from here on out their numbers should increase. In fact, some scientists are predicting that the next peak could be 30% – 50% stronger than the previous cycle! During that peak – in 1958 – the Northern lights were frequently visible in Mexico.
Why should anyone care? During the last peak of 2001 the Northern Lights were substantially more active and there were actually power interruptions in some places in Canada due to the magnetic fields that cause the northern lights. The fields induced eddy currents on the power lines which overloaded some of the lines and caused them to shut down. These same magnetic fields also induced currents into other long metallic objects causing damage. One example is the Alaska oil pipeline. The currents set up a galvanic reaction which caused corrosion to take place at much higher than normal rates. During solar-induced magnetic storms, the energy associated with the display of the northern lights is on the order of 100 million megawatts. That’s quite a light bulb!
Also, we are in only in the middle of the extended solar cycle and in 2012 we may reach or exceed the same level of peak sunspot activity that existed in 1958 and occurred at the end of that extended cycle. Think of all the things developed since then – satellites, cell phones, beepers, computer networks and a computer controlled power grid – electronics in general. What effects will such strong planet-wide magnetic and electrical fields have on these things? We could be in for a wild ride over the next few years.
There are other effects as well. The level of sunspot activity has an effect on the weather here on earth. During the period from about 1650 through about 1710 – and for decades following that period – the weather around the world was exceptionally cold. During that 60 year period there were only about 50 sunspots observed. With today’s conditions one would expect to observe about forty five thousand in the same period. That is certainly a significant difference!
The essentially sunspot free period from 1650 through 1710 is now known of as The Little Ice Age. This was a time where rivers that now remain ice-free froze over regularly – rivers such as the Thames in England and the Delaware in the US. Additionally, the canals in Holland froze solid regularly, the glaciers in the European Alps advanced considerably and by 1695 there was no open water anywhere around Iceland – the Atlantic Ocean around the island was frozen! Since that time the earth has warmed considerably.
Let’s look back a bit further too – at Greenland. Today it is a fairly inhospitable place. However during the period from around 982 through to about 1430 Greenland was inhabited and farmed. This is also when it acquired its name – Greenland. Some early maps call it Gruntland or Ground Land. Not nearly as appealing! It is said that when Eric the Red was exiled to the place for murder, he named it Greenland in what surely was an early marketing ploy by Mr. The Red (ha!) bent on selling people on living there. However, the fact remains that people lived there and raised sheep and some crops for close to 450 years. Yet, the weather changed and the European inhabitants left or died out. Modern archeology says those who stayed died from malnutrition – probably brought on by the weather turning colder and crops and animals dying off. If we look back even further it is now known that there was a Paleo-Eskimo culture that lived on Greenland which disappeared around 200 AD. I have no true idea of what the area was like in between. However, could it be that Greenland becomes more or less inhabitable based upon the cycles of the sun? It is an interesting thought.
In any case, you can see by looking at the following figure that sunspot activity has been increasing steadily since the time of The Little Ice Age. In fact, it appears to follow a “long” – or extended – cycle of about 80 or 85 years where there is a low and then a climb to a maximum in sunspot activity and then a drop off again. However, if you look at the graph closely it appears that the steepness of the line from minimum to maximum of each cycle is becoming slightly more steep with each passing “long” cycle. Also, note that the minimum of each of these long cycles is becoming more active. In fact, the minimum in 1970 is much higher than any of the previous minimums and also higher than all but 2 or 3 of the peaks in the previous “long” cycles! As I said above, we could be in for interesting times indeed during the next peaks which should occur around 2012, 2023, 2034 and 2045 before dropping back down to the solar minimum again.
Where will this next peak take us? I do not know. However, as we are all aware, there is certainly much talk about global warming and it being caused by man. While I do believe that the earth is warming I am not so certain of our complicity in this event. Somehow I do not think pollution here on earth is having any effect on the cycles of the sun! While we certainly do our share of polluting, etc. there are forces at work that we do not – as yet – fully understand which are MUCH larger than any that our civilization could create. Maybe the end of the current “long cycle” will bring a drop off similar to the one between 1650 and 1710 and we will all be happy to eat sauerkraut, turnips and potatoes instead of wheat and corn. Maybe someday we’ll understand it all, but only God knows what is in store for us tomorrow.