solar cycle

solar cycle
the variation of sunspots, prominences, flares, and other solar activity through an 11-year cycle. Also called solar activity cycle. Cf. sunspot cycle.

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Period in which several important kinds of solar activity repeat, discovered in 1843 by Samuel Heinrich Schwabe (1789–1875).

Lasting about 22 years on average, it includes two 11-year cycles of sunspots, whose magnetic polarities alternate between the Sun's northern and southern hemispheres, and two peaks and two declines in the phenomena (e.g., solar prominences, auroras) that vary in the same period. Attempts have been made to connect the solar cycle to various other phenomena, including possible slight variations in the diameter of the Sun, sequences of annual growth rings in trees, and even the stock market's rise and fall.

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      period in which several important kinds of solar activity repeat themselves. The cycle, lasting about 22 years on average, includes two 11-year cycles of rise and fall of sunspot activity and two peaks and two declines in each of the various phenomena that vary with sunspots. These phenomena include fluctuations in the number and size of sunspots and solar prominences, alternation of the magnetic polarity of sunspots and the polar fields, and magnetic effects such as increased auroral activity and radio interference on Earth. Sunspot groups have a magnetic field with a north and a south pole, and in each 11-year rise and fall the same polarity leads in a given hemisphere, while the opposite polarity leads in the other. In each rise and fall, the latitude of sunspot eruption starts around 30° and drifts to the equator, but the magnetic fields of the follower spots (sunspots usually come in pairs, called leader and follower) drift poleward and reverse the polar field. In the next 11-year period, the magnetic polarities are reversed but follow the same pattern. Therefore, the magnetic period is 22 years.

      Although sunspots were known as early as 1600, no one noticed that their number changed with time until the German amateur astronomer Samuel Heinrich Schwabe (Schwabe, Samuel Heinrich) announced the 11-year cycle in 1843. The 22-year magnetic cycle was discovered in 1925 by the American astronomer George Ellery Hale (Hale, George Ellery). Since that time, unsuccessful attempts have been made to connect the solar cycle to a variety of other phenomena, including possible slight variations in the diameter of the Sun, sequences of annual growth rings in trees, and even the rise and fall of stock markets.

      In 1894 the English astronomer E.W. Maunder pointed out that very few sunspots were observed between 1645 and 1715, a period now known as the Maunder minimum. This period coincided with the coldest part of the “Little Ice Age” (c. 1500–1850) in the Northern Hemisphere, when the River Thames in England froze over during winter, Viking settlers abandoned Greenland, and Norwegian farmers demanded that the Danish king recompense them for lands occupied by advancing glaciers. The event was confirmed by the American astronomer J.A. Eddy, using carbon isotope ratios in tree rings. During this time the 11-year cycle continued but with a much-reduced amplitude. The data suggest that other such events occurred in the previous millennium. The physical mechanism that explains how sunspots affect Earth's climate is unknown, and a single episode, however suggestive, does not prove that lower sunspot numbers produce cooling.

Harold Zirin

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Universalium. 2010.

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