A glance at the figure below (of sunspot numbers from Solar Cycles 1-23) reveals
a pattern immediately: roughly every eleven years, the sunspot numbers climb to a
maximum. In between, they fall to nearly zero. With a longer look, however, a slightly
more subtle phenomenon is visible. Not every solar maximum involves a climb to the same
height, though the minima are all at similar levels. Comparing the sharp peak around 1957
(up to 200 sunspots per day) and the minor ones in the first half of the 1800s (only about 50),
one sees a huge difference. What causes such a difference between solar cycles?
The answer to that question remains unknown, but anyone can see that the difference exists.
These differences of 150 sunspots can cause important effects at earth, making the amplitude
of the solar maximum a critical number to know. Different solar maxima, depending on their
heights, can coincide with a Little Ice Age (as during the Maunder Minimum in the last half
of the seventeenth century) or with a period of solar-geomagnetic activity so impressive
that an International Geophysical Year is declared (as in 1957-58). People will want to
know whether their TV signals will be interrupted because of magnetic storms or, though
it's highly unlikely, whether they'll have to bundle up better than usual. With Solar
Cycle 23 peaking in 2000, there is a scramble to predict whether the latest max
will soar to heights near 200 (like the last few) or rise to only an average 100 or so. But
how can such a thing be predicted?
Actually, quite a few methods exist for predicting the amplitude of a solar cycle even
before the cycle begins. The first, suggested by Ohl and Ohl in 1979, relates the
geomagnetic aa index at the last solar minimum to the amplitude of the next solar maximum
(although the data for this are sometimes unavailable until after the cycle begins). A second
method, developed by Joan Feynman, uses the same aa data, but relates the "extra data" remaining
after the data in phase with the sunspot cycle is removed to the next solar cycle a few years in
advance. Also, Richard Thompson found a way to relate the number of days of disturbed
conditions in Earth's magnetic field during one solar cycle to the amplitude of the next solar
cycle. A very new method found by the Air Force Research Laboratory calculates the time
of the solar maximum using emission features seen in Fe XIV that appear at 55 degrees
latitude on the Sun, travel toward the poles for three or four years, and disappear
at the poles fourteen months after the solar maximum. So what is in store for us
this solar maximum?
The latest-prediction graph from the Marshall Space Flight Center is above. The solid, smooth
curve shows the predicted values for the entire cycle, with a maximum occurring near June
2000 at around 140. The two smooth, dashed curves on either side of the curve show the error limits of
the prediction -- it could be off by that much. Finally, the jagged line climbing up the
curve is made up of actual sunspot-number observations. One can see that it follows the
prediction fairly closely, at least at the beginning of the cycle. Earlier predictions (such
as those of the Solar Cycle 23 Project panel in 1996) suggested a maximum of about 160 in
March 2000. In early 1998, the Marshall Space Flight Center predicted a maximum of 170 in June
2000. With the kind of fluctuations visible in the latest-prediction graph, it comes as
no surprise that the predictions keep changing. The one thing that seems relatively certain
is that the upcoming solar maximum will break no records for height or lack thereof -- it
may be slightly above average, but nowhere near devastating.
To learn more about predicting solar maxima and to get the latest graphs and numbers, follow
the links below.
The Amplitude of the Solar Cycle 23
The author of this page describes the method he used
to conclude that the upcoming solar maximum will be big, but not the
New Sunspot Cycle to be Bigger than Average
From the Marshall Space Flight Center's astronomy
headlines, this article talks about predictions for a high solar max, with a
graph and extensions to the effects of such a situation.
Predicting Solar Maximum
This article from Planetary News discusses the
Air Force Research Laboratory's technique for predicting when the
solar maximum will arrive.
Solar Activity Prediction Methods
This site explains (though not exactly on a K-12 level)
how predictions of solar activity are actually made.
Solar Cycle 23 Project: Summary of Panel Findings
This 1996 report by the NOAA Space Environment Center
gives detailed background for its prediction on the strength of the
Solar Flares -- What We Can Expect from This Solar Cycle
A page relating flares and the sunspot cycle, predicting
a much larger-than-average number of flares as Solar Cycle 23 progresses
toward maximum activity.
Space Weather at the Next Solar Maximum of Cycle 23
This report from Sweden represents one group's
expectations for the amount of activity during the solar maximum
and the severity of the geomagnetic storms it will cause. With charts.
Sunspot Cycle Predictions
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center offers on this page
both techniques for predicting the arrival of the solar maximum and a
graph showing the current prediction.
What the Future Holds
Though this site is mostly about the solar cycle in
general, it contains both short-term and long-term estimates for the
strength of solar maxima.
Brought to you by the
International Solar-Terrestrial Physics Program and
Web Design and Development: Theresa Valentine
Last Modified: 8/3/00