Is the Sun going on Lockdown too?


While the world is on lockdown, and we are fully engrossed in following closely the latest coronavirus developments, we find ourselves coming across an alarming news about our primary source of heat and light that keeps us all alive,  only to increase our fears about our future. Recent reports state that the activity on the Sun’s surface has fallen dramatically, promoting a period of solar minimum that might cause droughts and famine on Earth. Although this news does sound unsettling, you do not need to panic.

Our Sun, which is 4.5 billion years old, faces constant changes in its activity levels, and we must expect extraordinary consequences. By the end of the 17th century, an extreme “solar minimum”—quiet and cool solar activity—has contributed to the Little Ice Age and temperatures fell so low on Earth. Since then, scientists have been measuring the areas of magnetic activity on the Sun’s surface, known as “sunspots”. The fewer sunspots are, the higher the chances of disruption on Earth are.

According to experts at Spaceweather, so far in the year 2020, the Sun has been “blank” 76% of the time, and no sunspots have been counted. Does this mean that the world will soon be facing another ice age? Is it the dramatic end-of-the-world? Science and history tell us “No”.

“There is nothing to worry about,” says the Met Office weather forecasts for the UK, and the Royal Astronomical Society members; they urge everyone not to panic and remind us that this is just nature! The total number of sunspots peaks every eleven years, during which the Sun passes through its regular activity cycle from solar maximum—hottest and most effective—to solar minimum.

Sometimes, the Sun passes through a period of reduced sunspot activity; such as the “Dalton Minimum”, roughly occurring about 1790–1830. These years were marked by periods of severe climate abnormalities of brutal cold; however, these coincided with a time of cooler global temperatures mostly related to a great volcanic eruption in 1815, which caused giant ash clouds to block solar rays.

Though this might not read good, these years greatly affected the world’s food production and led to widespread famine. The year 1816 became known as the “Year Without a Summer” or the “Poverty Year”, as snow fell in July, dozens of people died from hunger, and a typhus epidemic made things worse. Still, there is no need to panic; that story had a totally different set of factors.

A solar minimum contributes to very slightly colder winters, “but by barely a 20th of a degree,” says Met Office scientist Jeff Knight. “The last solar minimum we had in 2008–2010,” states Mathew Owens, professor of space physics at Reading University, “was the deepest for 100 years, and we did not die then!”

Summing up, the Sun will shine again, but the world will never be as it is today. At this moment, planet Earth and its inhabitants are already going through a lot; we have enough to worry about without picturing yet another devastating event.



Cover photo credit: ESA/NASA

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SCIplanet is a bilingual edutainment science magazine published by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Planetarium Science Center and developed by the Cultural Outreach Publications Unit ...
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