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Atmosphere, Climate, Space/Planetary Science, Weather



The sun is perfect and must be free of blemishes – this was the thinking of Aristotle and many of the early Greek philosophers working from the idea that heavenly bodies were perfect. This concept influenced most scholars through the sixteenth century. Around 1610, however, following the invention of the telescope in the Netherlands, three observers--Galileo Galilei, Johann Fabricius, a Lutheran pastor and astronomer and Christopher Scheiner, a Jesuit priest--observed dark spots on the Sun's surface. Details here . Scheiner, seeking to preserve the idea of the sun as a perfect heavenly body, explained these spots as planets orbiting the sun close in. Galileo, however realized that these spots indeed existed on the surface of the sun. With today's telescopes we can see the details of sunspots. See Sunspot image

Although sunspots have been observed for over 2,000 years, and were first reported by the Chinese, the invention of the telescope in the 17th century resulted in more detailed observations. As a result, for the past 400 years, we have a detailed record of sunspot activity. Prior to that time, sunspot activity can be estimated by proxies.

In recent months, much attention has been drawn to the absence of sunspots. Sunspots normally cycle with a maximum number every 11 years on average. The last maximum occurred in 2001 and was accompanied by other solar disturbances like flares. According to, the minimum that followed (as of 31 December, 2009), has had 771 spotless days compared to an average of 465 days. This current minimum has been extraordinarily long. According to a July, 2009 article in EOS, there is also evidence that sunspots of the current cycle are magnetically weaker than in the past.

Sunspots are relatively cool areas on the surface of the Sun, but since they are surrounded by much warmer areas, the net effect of sunspots is to increase total solar irradiance. The Sun's output varies about 0.1% over a solar cycle.

So, why should we be concerned about sunspots? The answer to this question is complex – but during periods of low sunspot activity the sun's irradiance decreases. Although this decrease is small, it appears that various feedback mechanisms can amplify it. Many researchers point to Maunder minimum, a period of low solar activity that is strongly correlated to the most intense period of the Little Ice Age. It is estimated that total solar output during the Maunder minimum was 0.25% less than today's solar output.

Some scientists think the current lack of sunspots may result in a temporary cooling of Earth which will mask the impact of too many greenhouse gases.



Seeing that sunspot activity and solar output is at its lowest in the past 100 years, your group's ESS analysis will provide policy makers with information concerning the impact if current trends continue for the next 30 years.

There is a concern among policy makers that if the current minimum in sunspot activity persists, global warming may pause or even slightly reverse for up to 20 or 30 years. During this period, however, greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) are likely to continue to build up in the atmosphere. Based on your knowledge of the effects of solar activity on terrestrial temperatures, provide policy makers with an ESS analysis detailing the effects the current solar minimum may have on global temperatures, and what may result once solar activity returns to prior levels if current plans to curb greenhouse emissions are shelved.


Date: 1/22/2010

Scenario Images:

Prediction of the coming sunspot cycle
NASA prediction of the coming sunspot cycle show fewer sunspots than the previous cycle. (Courtesy NASA Marshall Space Flight Center)

Plot of spotless days during the past century
The year 2008 had the highest number of spotless (no sunspots) days since 1913. The trend continued into 2009 which had 260 spotless days. (Courtesy



Goddard Space Flight Center Visualization Studio (Cycle A)
Contains NASA's heliophysics gallery - numerous images of the sun and description of various NASA missions.


Sunspots (Cycle A)
Links to various articles on sunspots.


Sunspots and Climate (Cycle A)
This site describes the relation between sunspot number and climate. It also describes an 85 year sunspot cycle related to the length of the cycle. The article is dated 1997 and sunspot trends have changed since then.


The magnetic sun (Cycle A)
Describes sunspots as being areas of intense magnetic fields. Relates the 11 year sunspot cycle to changes in the sun's magnetic field.


The Sunspot Cycle (Cycle A)
This link from the Marshall Space Flight Center, provides information on solar structure, flares, and the magnetic fields of sunspots. The modern history of sunspot observations beginning in the early 17th century, including the Maunder minimum is decscribed. Sunspot cycles and numbers are defined.


3-D view of the Sun and Heliosphere (Cycle B)
Images from two space-based observatories


Deep solar minimum (Cycle B)
Compares current sunspot activity with the past. Describes how the solar wind, radio emissions and irradiance during the 2008-2009 sunspot minimum compare with previous sunspot minima.


Hinode Mission to the Sun (Cycle B)
Images from a NASA telescope onboard a Japanese satellite for studying the sun.


How does the Sun's rotation cause sunspots and magnetic field reversals? (Cycle B)
Describes the differential rotation of the sun and how this rotation affects magnetic field lines and the formation of sunspots.


New Solar Cycle Prediction (Cycle B)
Describes predictions of the timing and intensity of the next sunspot maximum. (Cycle B) provides up-to-date information on the solar wind, solar flares, sunspot number, and the 10 centimeter radio flux of the sun. Each of these solar phenomena are described.


Sunspots and Magnetic Fields (Cycle B)
Describes sunspots as being caused by very strong magnetic fields on the sun. Also talks about the relation between sunspots, flares and coronal mass ejections.


The Sun and Climate (Cycle B)
Explores relation between solar cycles, Carbon 14 and climate. Explains the relationship between formation of Carbon 14 and cosmic rays. Explains how the solar wind is related to Carbon 14 formation.


Digital Library for Earth System Science (Cycle C)
The ultimate resource for Earth Science lesson plans, investigations and publications.


NASA Innovations in Climate Education (Cycle C)
NASA Innovations in Climate Education (NICE) is developing high quality literacy resources to help better understand and explain the causes and effects of global change. On this website you will find searchable resources and links to climate data.


Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (Cycle C)
SOHO, the Solar & Heliospheric Observatory, is a project of international collaboration between ESA and NASA to study the Sun from its deep core to the outer corona and the solar wind. Go to the Classroom to find activities and lesson plans.


Windows on the Universe - Sunspots (Cycle C)
Basic sunspot information and links to additional classroom resources and activities.


Sample Investigations:


Observing convection (Cycle A)
Convection is investigated in liquids. Helps students understand how solar energy in transferred by convection in Earth's atmosphere.
Difficulty: beginner


Plotting sunspot activity (Cycle A)
Students will learn how to graph sunspots, on the Sun using a solar graph. They will learn where sunspots usually occur on the sun. Contains links to two other activities: Sunspot cycles and Tracking active regions.
Difficulty: advanced


Solar storms and you! Activity 1 (Cycle A)
Using a graphing calculator, students plot sunspot activity and look for patterns.
Difficulty: beginner


Sunspot activity and ocean temperatures (Cycle A)
This activity provides sunspot number data from 1610 to 1990 and sea surface temperature anomalies in degrees Celsius from 1850 to 1990. Students are asked to see if there is a relationship between sunspot numbers and ocean temperatures.
Difficulty: beginner


Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (Cycle B)
Several activities are included. Tracking sunspots; measuring a coronal mass ejection; and matching magnetic activity and active regions on the sun are some of the activities included. Lesson plans are also included.
Difficulty: beginner
Lesson plans: grades 6-8
Lesson plans: grades 9-12


Space Weather and You! (Cycle B)
The learner will explore "space weather," its measurements and prediction. The learner will look at the relation between the sun , space between the sun and Earth and Earth. The learner will explore web sites related to space weather and its resources. The learner will also access plots of real time data and learn about the prediction of space weather.
Difficulty: intermediate


Space Weather and You! Introduction 2 (Cycle B)
How solar storms are related to solar cycles like the sunspot cycle are explored. The student will learn about major solar events and their predictability.
Difficulty: advanced


Sunspot activity and ocean temperatures (Cycle C)
This exercise has students explore whether or not there is a relationship between sunspot activity and ocean temperatures.
Difficulty: intermediate


Welcome to sunspots (Cycle C)
This is an advanced activity. Using a java tool, the relation between sunspots and x-ray activity is explored.
Difficulty: advanced




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Systems, order, and organization
      • Evidence, models, and explanation
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties and changes of properties in matter
        • Motions and forces
        • Transfer of energy
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Structure of the earth system
        • Earth in the solar system
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural hazards
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Motions and forces
        • Interactions of energy and matter
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
      • History and Nature of Science (Std G)
        • Science as a human endeavor
        • Nature of scientific knowledge
        • Historical perspectives
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • build new mathematical knowledge through their work with problems;
      • develop a disposition to formulate, represent, abstract, and generalize in situations within and outside mathematics;
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on learning to reason and construct proofs as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • develop and evaluate mathematical arguments and proofs;
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking to communicate with others;
      • express mathematical ideas coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others;
      • extend their mathematical knowledge by considering the thinking and strategies of others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize connections to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • recognize, use, and learn about mathematics in contexts outside of mathematics.
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to analyze the spatial organization of people, places, and environments on Earth’s surface
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • That people create regions to interpret Earth’s complexity
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How physical systems affect human systems
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students demonstrate a sound understanding of the nature and operation of technology systems.
      • Students are proficient in the use of technology.
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
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