Thursday, January 8, 2009

NASA Predictions: Where have all the sunspots gone?

Also see the Updated version of the sunspot minimum

With thanks to and appologies to Pete Seeger:

Where have all the sunspots gone? NA-SA search-ing,
Where have all the sunspots go-ne? NASA don't know.
Where have all the sunspots gone? Global Cooling, anyone?
Will NASA ever learn? Will NA-SA ev-er learn?

Where has all the carbon gone? Green-house gas-es,
Where has all the carbon go-ne? Come down as snow!
Where has all the carbon gone? Heating houses, everyone,
Will NASA ever learn? Will NA-SA ev-er learn?

Where has Global Warming gone? Point not tip-ping,
Where has Global Warming go-ne? Its gonna slow.
Where has Global Warming gone? Normal seasons of the Sun,
Will NASA ever learn? Will NA-SA ev-er learn?

As Yogi Berra famously observed, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."


When NASA scientists make predictions about the long-term future (six to twelve years) you don't expect them to make drastic changes in only a few months. Yet, they just have!

Back a few months ago (October 2008, see left side in photo above) NASA predicted that the upcoming sunspot cycle would peak at a higher level than the previous cycle which recently ended. The previous cycle peaked at around 120 in the year 2000. NASA predicted the upcoming cycle would peak at around 137 early in the year 2012, an increase of about 15% over the past cycle.

As the diagram above indicates, NASA smoothes short-term jagged excursions in sunspot counts and plots the yearly average as a smoothed bold curve. They also provide a range of about plus and minus 20% as indicated by the smooth curves above and below the average. All predictions refer to the smoothed averages.

This month (January 2009, see right side in photo above) NASA revised their prediction and now say the upcoming cycle will peak at a level some 30% below their prediction of only three months ago! They say it will peak at about 104 late in the year 2012, a decrease of about 15% below the past cycle. That is a grand total of 30% below their prediction of only three month ago!
If we go back a few years ago, to 2006, they were predicting a peak of 145 for the coming cycle, so the latest prediction is more than 40% lower than their original one. OY!


Back in 2006 NASA predicted the previous cycle was ending and the next would begin in late 2006 or early 2007.

Well, here it is 2009 and the next cycle has not begun!

That delay is the reason for the change in predictions. The next sunspot cycle was expected one or two years ago but has yet to materialize.

This is our US Government taxpayer money at work!


I am no weather or climate expert, but I think I can do better than NASA. My prediction, shown in the annotations above, is that the upcoming cycle will peak at about 80 in the year 2013 or perhaps even 2014.

Note that my prediction is that the peak will be reached a year or more later and will be near or below the lowest edge of the NASA plus and minus 20% band for NASA's October 2008 prediction. Please make a note of my prediction and, in 2013 or 2014, let me know how I did! Of course, anything posted to the WWW becomes a more or less permanant record so there will be proof if I am correct (and I will appologize if I am wrong).


Sunspot cycles are about 11 years long, with some as short as 9 years and others as long as 14. It turns out that average global surface temperatures are correlated with the number of sunspots and inversely correlated with the length of the sunspot cycle.

Although human activity, such as burning formerly sequestered carbon from petroleum, coal and natural gas and releasing heat energy and CO2 into the environment, accounts for a substantial fraction of the current Global Warming trend, most climate change is due to the natural cycles in the activity of the Sun and changes in the orbit and tilt of the Earth.

The above diagram, from Wikipedia, shows how sunspot activity has varied since the year 1600. According to NASA the period from about 1645 to 1715, called "Maunder Minimum" or "the Little Ice Age", corresponded to a time of little sunspot activity. The "Dalton Minimum" in the early 1800's was a shorter and smaller drop in solar activity. These periods saw considerable Global Cooling.
The period since 1940 has seen relatively higher solar activity that corresponds to the observed Global Warming.


If, as now appears possible, sunspot activity is actually decreasing, and if that trend continues (two big "ifs") we may experience a reduction in the rate of increase in Global Warming and, who knows, perhaps a bit of Global Cooling!

This could give us time to control our energy usage and switch to more carbon-neutral sources such as wind, water, biomass, direct solar, and nuclear, along with recycling and conservation. We may also benefit from the affects of globalization in raising living standards and reducing fertility rates.

However, so long as population continues to increase, along with worldwide standards of living, it is inevitable that we will continue to release more heat energy and sequestered carbon into the environment for the forseeable future.

The only "hope" we have to reverse this trend would be a nuclear war or a genetic engineering disaster that might block the sun for a season and/or reduce the population drastically. No one would wish for such a "solution".

Thus, unless the apparent reduction in sunspot activity leads us to an extended global cooling or temperature-neutral period, we will have to learn to live with a warmer Earth.

Ira Glickstein


Ira Glickstein said...

I just found this amazingly wrong prediction from NASA dated March 2006 and titled "Solar Storm Warning":

"This week researchers announced that a storm is coming--the most intense solar maximum in fifty years. The prediction comes from a team led by Mausumi Dikpati of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). 'The next sunspot cycle will be 30% to 50% stronger than the previous one," she says. ...

"Solar physicist David Hathaway of the National Space Science & Technology Center (NSSTC)... agrees with Dikpati that the next solar maximum should be a doozy. But he disagrees with one point. Dikpati's forecast puts Solar Max at 2012. Hathaway believes it will arrive sooner, in 2010 or 2011. ... 'History shows that big sunspot cycles ramp up faster than small ones,' he says. 'I expect to see the first sunspots of the next cycle appear in late 2006 or 2007—and Solar Max to be underway by 2010 or 2011.'

"Who's right? Time will tell. Either way, a storm is coming."
[Emphasis added]

Well, neither Hathaway nor Dikpati were right. The start of the next cycle, expected in late 2006 or 2007 has not materialized and it is now 2009!

By the way, Hathaway is the NASA scientist responsible for the two predictions featured in the photo at the head of my Topic. He has revised his prediction downward. The coming solar storm will NOT be a doozy. It will NOT be stronger than the previous cycle. It will NOT peak in 2010 or 2011, but in 2012 or later.

I expect it to peak in 2013 or 2014 and to be considerable weaker than even Hathaway's lowest recent estimates.

The "coming storm" will be a great disappointment to the most rabid Global Warming worriers who think a "tipping point" is near.

However, we should not take the opposite view that Global Warming is a total hoax. It IS real and we should take prudent measures to reduce CO2 emissions, such as the proposed revenue-neutral Carbon Tax now gaining suport from both L-minded and C-minded opinion leaders, including James Hansen of NASA, Ralph Nader, Exxon's CEO, and me!

Ira Glickstein

Steve Ruberg said...

Considering that the article is from NASA, it's too bad they used the wording they chose. For instance, instead of saying " The next sunspot cycle WILL be 30 to 50% stronger ..." they should say " The next sunspot cycle MAY be...". This happens at university and government research institutions all the time. The PR department is supposed to report on notable activities but they end up using media speak and hype. You wouldn't see most scientists using this wording in publications or when talking to peers at conferences.

Just to clarify, NCAR is a university research center. However, both NASA and NCAR are engaged in something called "research". Research is by nature uncertain. I know Ira knows very well what research is but I can't help pointing this out.

I know very little about climate or solar weather research but it seems to me that in the case of making predictions about a system that is 96 million miles away - the uncertainty could be really large! Even attempting to correlate the past data record can be misleading as we are looking at a sunspot record that is only about 300 years in duration.

These kinds of forecasts remind me of a scientist at a lab in the Great Lakes where I work who was responsible for making lake level forecasts. Lake levels are very important to Great Lakes freighters - a one inch increase can allow a freighter carry about $30,000 more in cargo. Lake levels were rising, waves were causing erosion which was leading to houses falling into the lake and other problems - it became a very public issue. The researcher used information such as past lake level records back to the 1890s, tree ring data, future climate forecasts, and yes even solar weather to forecast that the lake levels would continue to rise to all time highs. The very next year lake levels took a dive in opposition to his forecast and they have continued to decline ever since. We are now looking at very close to all time record lows. So much for forecasting!

When attempting to understand earth climate or solar weather we are dealing with such a small amount of time that humans have been collecting data compared to the amount of time these systems have existed that any forecast naturally has a lot of uncertainty. Researchers are supposed to make predictions and are very aware of the uncertainty involved. Criticism of the failure of the prediction is expected and leads to another turn around the forecast model design spiral. However, the media many times portrays the forecast as a dooms day scenario ignoring the uncertainty and hyping the worst possible outcome. The real-time nature of information has put us in the position of publishing forecasts that are really still in the developmental stage. The public (not referring to the educated and informed folk who read this blog :) ) can't tell the difference between an immature forecast and a more mature forecast (the weather for instance, which we still get wrong!). I wonder if this will lead to an even greater loss of confidence in science on the part of the general public.

I still have not contacted the NOAA folks about the questionable placement of sensors we previously blogged about. Will try to do that this week as we are now settled into a new location for our lab.

And yes the Bloomfield Hills, MI lurker seems to be me based on time of arrival. I am actually in Brighton but the router must not be located nearby. I'll see if I can find a MAC or IP address to confirm.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks Steve for your reasoned comments about the uncertainty of research. Those of us who have done research (as you and I have in that Air Force study contract on Object-Oriented Databases where we met) know Yogi Berra was incredibly prescient when he famously said "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

I agree with you it would have been better had NASA made it clear, in 2006, that the next sunspot cycle MAY be 30-50% stronger and MAY start in late 2006 or early 2007 and so on. Instead, they used the word WILL for those 2006 predictions that we now know were incredibly overstated.

As the photos in my Topic indicate, they allowed themselves plus and minus 20% leeway in their predictions. Even that margin was not sufficient. The January 2009 prediction is about 30% lower than the October 2008 prediction, 10% outside their own uncertainty limits! Their 2006 predictions are 30% off. (And, if my prediction comes true, NASA will have been more than 50% off :^)

However, even if they had said MAY rather than WILL, their scientific opinions would still have been regarded (correctly :^) as the best informed predictions US Government taxpayer funded research can buy. Their opinions would still have been used to inform government policy on energy plans, leading to laws that could put some industries out of business. Like the assurances by (Clinton-appointee) CIA head Tenet that Iraqi WMD was a "slam-dunk", these honestly-held opinions by the best experts can be wrong and can cause poor decision to be made and lives and fortunes to be lost.

There have been charges that the Administration and politically-motivated managers muzzled some environmental scientists over the past several years to tone down Global Warming concerns. Now it turns out some of the muzzlers were more correct than some of the scientists!

Thanks for agreeing to do some internal research at NASA about policies regarding placement of temperature sensors. Please ask about this Red Dot in Arizona on a NASA map released last week, indicating a +6 to 8 degree hot spot. The map shows slight warming (0 to +2) and slight to moderate cooling (-0 to 4) in the US during 2008. The linked website used Google Earth with street view to track down the anomalous stations, which appear to be poorly located.

Enjoy your new lab location and I'll be looking for lots more Bloomfield Hills, MI reports on "Live Traffic Feed". And, now I know you are using an Apple OSX with a Safari browser and you went to this page on the "Watts Up With That" blog after you left our TVPClub Blog. We're watching you!

Ira Glickstein

RofBeomax said...

The sunspot cycle appears to have a bigger correlation with weather than Hansen & his bulldogs have so far recognized. We should soon be to the point that we'll know if their models have ANY relationship to reality or not.

My favorite climate sites are 'Climate Audit' ( where (I believe) Steve McIntyre has demonstrated how willing the climate 'scientists' are willing to bend truth and 'Climate Debate Daily' ( where pro and con warming stories are linked every day or so.

Also the skeptic debunking site "" seems a helpful way to understand counter-arguments I often see (but nothing to dispute a correlation between sunspots and warming).

By the way, the Carbon Tax that Glickstein et al favor would certainly generate revenue that MIGHT be used for good purpose (though I know of no evidence for that) both CA and US politicians seem to favor carbon credits. [These are much more open to malfeasance I've read (no citation - forget where I read it - probably Thomas Sowell).]

My (cynical) opinion is that politicians would much rather have an unofficial slush fund (read about the UN carbon trading program) than tax money that they can earmark but turn into pocket cash with more difficulty. But that's only opinion and probably inappropriate for your blog.

Ira Glickstein said...

Thanks "RofBeomax" for your comments and welcome to the Blog!

The link you provided seems to be a fairly reasoned listing of the arguments made by Global Warming skeptics of various stripes along with links to the detailed counter-arguments.

As you have gathered from my postings and comments, I accept that we are in a Global Warming period, a significant part of which is due to human burning of previously sequestered carbon (coal, oil, natural gas). However, I do not think the majority of the warming is due to human activity nor that we are near any kind of tipping point.

I agree with you on the Carbon Tax - it is much too clean and tight for the slushy appetites of ordinary politics - but IT IS RIGHT FOR NOW, particularly if it is revenue-neutral with 100% dividend to the broad citizenry. However, NOW is the time to do it, while gasoline is at a low price and we need to get cash into the hands of people who will spend it. The idea has broad support from some political and business leaders on both sides. Perhaps we will see a miracle happen.

"RofBeomax" please consider sticking with this Blog and becoming a regular Commenter.

Ira Glickstein

PS: To make a URL clickable, type it into the Comment box as follows:

The best Blog anywhere is {a href=""}The Virtual Philosophy Club{/a}. [Note that you must use "<" and ">" in place of where I used <{> and <}> in the example.

When you do so, it will come out as: The best Blog anywhere is The Virtual Philosophy Club.

Ira Glickstein said...

Award for "Best Science Blog" and a joke about climate prediction:

Watts Up With That? a blog I often link to here for reasonable arguments and data on Global Warming has just been voted "Best Science Blog" by the 2008 Weblog Awards.

On that site, a commenter "Aussie John" posted a joke about how satellite data is used to predict climate changes:

"It was April and the Aboriginals in a remote part of Northern Australia asked their new elder if the coming winter was going to be cold or mild.

"Since he was an elder in a modern community he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky he couldn’t tell what the winter was going to be like.

"Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he told his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the tribe should collect firewood to be prepared.

"But being a practical leader, after several days he had an idea.

"He walked out to the telephone booth on the highway, called the Bureau of Meteorology and asked, ‘Is the coming winter in this area going to be cold?’

"The meteorologist responded, ‘It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold.’

"So the elder went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared.

"A week later he called the Bureau of Meteorology again. ‘Does it still look like it is going to be a very cold winter?’

"The meteorologist again replied, ‘Yes, it’s going to be a very cold winter.’

"The elder again went back to his community and ordered them to collect every scrap of firewood they could find.

"Two weeks later the elder called the Bureau again. ‘Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?’ he asked.

"‘Absolutely,’ the man replied. ‘It’s looking more and more like it is going to be one of the coldest winters ever.’

"‘How can you be so sure?’ the elder asked.

"The weatherman replied, ‘Our satellites have reported that the Aboriginals in the north are collecting firewood like crazy, and that’s always a sure sign.’"

Ira Glickstein

Ira Glickstein said...

NASA is really looking hard for those missing sunspots! According to our Live Traffic Feed, around mid-day yesterday someone at NASA Stennis Space Center, Mississippi, arrived from on The Virtual Philosophy Club: NASA Predictions: Where have all the sunspots gone? by searching for "sunspot prediction changes 2006 to 2009". He or she was using Internet Explorer 7.0 and Windows XP (not upgraded to Vista yet?)

Stennis Space Center "...will be responsible for propulsion testing on the upper stage of NASA’s Ares I and Ares V rockets and the main stage of the Ares V." Good luck guys!

Ira Glickstein