Occasionally, intense magnetic activity in the Sun creates sunspots, dark regions on the surface of the Sun. Sunspot activity rises and falls roughly every 11 years – the last maximum was in 2001, and activity slowly fell off to zero by 2006.
And since then…almost nothing. Scientists had expected sunspot activity to start increasing by now, but it hasn’t. No one knows why, or when the cycle will pick up again.
Why is this important?
Sunspots, created by intense magnetic activity, are associated with solar flares, enormous streams of high-energy particles sent shooting out into the Solar System. These play havoc with satellites and other electronic communication. So, no sunspots in this case would be a good thing.
Solar flares also create the beautiful northern and southern lights. In this case, no sunspots is a bad thing.
Perhaps most important, sunspots seem to be an indicator of solar activity. And low activity can mean lower temperatures here on Earth. The Sun once went 50 years without producing any spots – from 1650 to 1700 – and these years were some of the coldest in recorded history. Today they are known as the little Ice Age.
Are we on the brink of a new Ice Age? It’s wayyyy to early to tell. But scientists are keeping an eye on the Sun, to see if it reveals any clues.