Schrödinger’s Sunspots

Natural philosophers pondering the lack of sunspots during the Maunder Minimum should remember that just because the sunspots weren’t seen [from the surface of the Earth] it doesn’t mean the sunspots weren’t there.

The Maunder Minimum
According to Wikipedia the Maunder Minimum was invented in 1976 by John Eddy.

The Maunder Minimum, also known as the “prolonged sunspot minimum”, is the name used for the period around 1645 to 1715 during which sunspots became exceedingly rare, as was then noted by solar observers.

The term was introduced after John A. Eddy published a landmark 1976 paper in Science.

The Maunder Minimum roughly coincided with the middle part of the Little Ice Age, during which Europe and North America experienced colder than average temperatures. Whether there is a causal relationship, however, is still controversial.

Edward Walter Maunder (12 April 1851 – 21 March 1928) was a British astronomer best remembered for his study of sunspots and the solar magnetic cycle that led to his identification of the period from 1645 to 1715 that is now known as the Maunder Minimum.

John Eddy’s “landmark” invention arrived during the 1970s Global Cooling scare.

Global cooling was a conjecture during the 1970s of imminent cooling of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere culminating in a period of extensive glaciation.

1970s awareness
… in the popular press the possibility of cooling was reported generally without the caveats present in the scientific reports, and “unusually severe winters in Asia and parts of North America in 1972 and 1973…pushed the issue into the public consciousness“.

Eddy was laid off from the High Altitude Observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in 1973 due to budget cutbacks and the poor performance reviews he earned due to his interdisciplinary forays, which were frowned upon at the time.[citation needed]

He then was hired by NASA to write a book, which enabled him to travel east to do research in the great astronomy libraries, particularly at Harvard and the Naval Observatory, which he used to also do research on the Maunder Minimum.

His work on this was published in the journal Science as a cover story, and established his fame. After publication, his former employers at the HAO tried to hire him back.

The fame resulting from “The Maunder Minimum” paper landed him on the international lecture circuit, giving over 50 talks a year around the world about his work and history.

TIME Magazine Cover: The Cooling of America – Feb. 22, 1971

TIME Magazine Cover: The Big Freeze – Dec. 3, 1973

This “landmark” from 1976 ironically fed the “cooling” hysteria during a long, hot summer.

Science News wrote an article in 1975 called “Chilling Possibilities” warning of a new ice age.

A January 1975 article from the New York Times warned:

The most drastic potential change considered in the new report (by the National Academy of Sciences) is an abrupt end to the present interglacial period of relative warmth that has governed the planet’s climate for the past 10,000 years.

On April 28, 1975, Newsweek wrote an article stating:

Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve. But the scientists see few signs that government leaders anywhere are even prepared to take the simple measures of stockpiling food or of introducing the variables of climatic uncertainty into economic projections of future food supplies. The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become grim reality.

Global Warming or The “New Ice Age”? Fear of the “Big Freeze”
Global Research – 2 Jan 2013

TIME Magazine Cover: Shivering America – Dec. 24, 1979,16641,19791224,00.html

The summer of 1976 was considered to be one of the hottest summers in Europe (and especially the United Kingdom) within recent memory.

And his “landmark” invention is still fuelling gainful employment in academia.

We conclude that solar activity was indeed at an exceptionally low level during the Maunder minimum.

Although the exact level is still unclear, it was definitely lower than during the Dalton minimum of around 1800 and significantly below that of the current solar cycle #24.

Claims of a moderate-to-high level of solar activity during the Maunder minimum are rejected with a high confidence level.

The Maunder minimum (1645–1715) was indeed a grand minimum:
A reassessment of multiple datasets
Ilya G Usoskin, Rainer Arlt, Eleanna Asvestari, Ed Hawkins, Maarit Käpylä, Gennady A Kovaltsov, Natalie Krivova, Michael Lockwood, Kalevi Mursula, Jezebel O’Reilly, Matthew Owens, Chris J Scott, Dmitry D Sokoloff, Sami K Solanki, Willie Soon and José M Vaquero
Astronomy & Astrophysics – Volume 581 – September 2015

Not The Maunder Minimum
However, there are a couple of issues with the Maunder Minimum sunspot narrative.

Firstly, there is an academic counter culture that suggests “sunspot activity was moderate or even high” during the Maunder Minimum.

However, the exact level of solar activity in the 17th century remains somewhat uncertain (e.g. Vaquero & Vázquez 2009; Vaquero et al. 2011; Clette et al. 2014), leaving room for discussion and speculation.

For example, there have been several suggestions that sunspot activity was moderate or even high during the core MM (1645–1700), being comparable to or even exceeding the current solar cycle #24 (Schove 1955; Gleissberg et al. 1979; Cullen 1980; Nagovitsyn 1997; Ogurtsov et al. 2003; Nagovitsyn et al. 2004; Volobuev 2004; Rek 2013; Zolotova & Ponyavin 2015).

Some of these suggestions were based on a mathematical synthesis using empirical rules in a way similar to Schove (1955) and Nagovitsyn (1997) and therefore are not true reconstructions.

Some others used a re-analysis of the direct data series (Rek 2013; Zolotova & Ponyavin 2015) and provide claimed assessments of the solar variability.

While earlier suggestions have been convincingly rebutted by Eddy (1983), the most recent ones are still circulating.

If such claims were true, then the MM would not be a grand minimum.

This would potentially cast doubts upon the existence of any grand minimum, including those reconstructed from cosmogenic isotopes.

The Maunder minimum (1645–1715) was indeed a grand minimum:
A reassessment of multiple datasets
Ilya G Usoskin, Rainer Arlt, Eleanna Asvestari, Ed Hawkins, Maarit Käpylä, Gennady A Kovaltsov, Natalie Krivova, Michael Lockwood, Kalevi Mursula, Jezebel O’Reilly, Matthew Owens, Chris J Scott, Dmitry D Sokoloff, Sami K Solanki, Willie Soon and José M Vaquero
Astronomy & Astrophysics – Volume 581 – September 2015

In 1801 William Herschel commented that instrumental and observational shortcomings could explain most of the sunspot dearth between 1650 and 1713, and that, had more modern equipment been turned on the sun, many more spots would have been found; but we have little cause to think that he had looked very far into the matter, which then seemed of minor import.

The Maunder Minimum – John A Eddy
Science – 18 Jun 1976 – Vol. 192 – Issue 4245 – pp. 1189-1202

Secondly, the “best” opinions apparently link the [loosely defined] Little Ice Age with “volcanic action” i.e. not the Maunder Minimum.

The current best hypothesis for the cause of the Little Ice Age is that it was the result of volcanic action.

The onset of the Little Ice Age also occurred well before the beginning of the Maunder minimum[, and northern-hemisphere temperatures during the Maunder minimum were not significantly different from the previous 80 years, suggesting a decline in solar activity was not the main causal driver of the Little Ice Age.

The Little Ice Age (LIA) was a period of cooling that occurred after the Medieval Warm Period.

Several causes have been proposed:

cyclical lows in solar radiation,
heightened volcanic activity,
changes in the ocean circulation,
variations in Earth’s orbit and axial tilt (orbital forcing),
inherent variability in global climate, and
decreases in the human population.

There is no consensus regarding the time when the Little Ice Age began, but a series of events before the known climatic minima has often been referenced.


The Obscured Sun
If the academic counter culture is correct then the lack of sunspot observations during the Maunder Minimum implies the sunspots were obscured from view.

There are several layers of obscuration that can account for these observational anomalies.

Layer #1 – Pollution
The dramatic drop in temperatures suggests there was an increased level of atmospheric pollution caused by the burning of wood and coal.

From the mid-1600s, in U.K. cities, especially London, the incidence of ill-health was attributed to coal smoke from both domestic and industrial chimneys combining with the mists and fogs of the Thames Valley.

Layer #2 – Volcanic Dust
A series of large volcanic eruptions – beginning with the stratovolcano Hokkaidō Koma-ga-take in 1642 – lofted particles into the stratosphere.

Hokkaidō Koma-ga-take is a 1131-meter adesitic stratovolcano on the border between Mori, Shikabe, and Nanae, all within the Oshima Subprefecture of Hokkaidō, Japan.

The eruption of Hokkaido Koma-ga-take in June 1640, resulting in heavy ashfall and plants poisoning in Tsugaru Peninsula and nearby areas, has triggered the local crop failure, continuing to 1642.

Hekla [fissure stratovolcano] … 1693(VEI 4).

A stratovolcano, also known as a composite volcano, is a conical volcano built up by many layers (strata) of hardened lava, tephra, pumice and ash.

… the impact of the June 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo was global.

Slightly cooler-than-usual temperatures were recorded worldwide, with brilliant sunsets and intense sunrises attributed to the particulates; this eruption lofted particles high into the stratosphere.

The aerosols that formed from the sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon dioxide (CO2), and other gases dispersed around the world.

Layer #3 – Meteor Dust
During the Maunder Minimum there were significant amounts of meteor dust added to the upper atmosphere.


It’s likely that the disintegrating Comet Tempel–Tuttle contributed significantly to this meteor dust during the Maunder Minimum.

55P/Tempel–Tuttle (commonly known as Comet Tempel–Tuttle) is a periodic comet with an orbital period of 33 years.

In 1699, it was observed by Gottfried Kirch but was not recognized as a periodic comet until the discoveries by Tempel and Tuttle during the 1866 perihelion.

The orbit of 55P/Tempel–Tuttle intersects that of Earth nearly exactly, hence streams of material ejected from the comet during perihelion passes do not have to spread out over time to encounter Earth.

This coincidence means that streams from the comet at perihelion are still dense when they encounter Earth, resulting in the 33-year cycle of Leonid meteor storms.

The Leonids are a prolific meteor shower associated with the comet Tempel–Tuttle.

The Leonids are famous because their meteor showers, or storms, can be among the most spectacular.

Layer #4 – Cometary Dust
In addition to the detritus associated with Comet Tempel–Tuttle there was triage created by Comet Halley in 1682 and the debris from the [likely] disintegration of the sungrazing Great Comet of 1680.

C/1680 V1, also called the Great Comet of 1680, Kirch’s Comet, and Newton’s Comet, has the distinction of being the first comet discovered by telescope.

The comet was discovered by Gottfried Kirch on 14 November 1680, New Style, and became one of the brightest comets of the 17th century – reputedly visible even in daytime – and was noted for its spectacularly long tail.

Passing 0.42 AUs from Earth on 30 November 1680, it sped around an extremely close perihelion of 0.0062 AU (930,000 km; 580,000 mi) on 18 December 1680, reaching its peak brightness on 29 December as it swung outwards.

Halley’s Comet or Comet Halley, officially designated 1P/Halley, is a short-period comet visible from Earth every 74–79 years.

Halley’s periodic returns have been subject to scientific investigation since the 16th century. The three apparitions from 1531 to 1682 were noted by Edmond Halley, enabling him to predict its 1759 return.


Overall, there are very good reasons to believe sunspots were simply obscured from view during the Maunder Minimum.

In other words:

There are very good reasons to believe Solar Grand Minima don’t exist.

But, as always, readers should steer their own course through the Maunder Miasma.

Gallery | This entry was posted in Astrophysics, Atmospheric Science, Comets, Monte Rosa - Colle Gnifetti, Old Japanese Cedar Tree, Solar System. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Schrödinger’s Sunspots

  1. Thanks for this post. The life of John A Eddy is the more interesting part, on a stage where it seems to me that the production of quantities of smoke is part of the act. But today J A Eddy has a cycle effectively named after him, that I (for what my 2c are worth) attribute great importance.

    The blog site ran a piece “‘Nature Unbound – IX’” Here : Where fig 122 showed – and extrapolated back – the Eddy cycle. The maunder min corresponds to the last of the Eddy cycle roots. Earlier peaks and roots also corresponded to earlier known landmarks.

    My surprise was that the earlier roots from 6.2bce to 2bce all corresponded to consecutive points identified earlier by myself from other private research (plus two peaks to within some limits). My question is: What is the statistical probability of this happening and still have no meaning? Eddy must have hit on something big. (see: ).

  2. Don Ecsedy says:

    “There are very good reasons to believe Solar Grand Minima don’t exist.

    But, as always, readers should steer their own course through the Maunder Miasma.”

    Interesting article. Thanks.

    I was born and raised in an industrial city where, in 1950, the street lights were on at noon and the smut attached itself to one’s nose and ears. Outdoor laundry was taken down and hung in cellars when the furnaces were vented (I assume) and the red dust layered on the window sills.

    If I were steering that course I’d first want to identify the sites of the observations recorded and determine the atmospheric conditions (they weren’t all made in London, I assume) of the times and places. If there were enough ‘clean’ observational sites confirming the numbers of sunspots, then perhaps there is a correlation between GSM and volcanic eruptions and other phenomena.

    Best Regards,


  3. johnm33 says:

    I’ve been reading V.Zharkova and M.Mathis’ takes on solar cycles, both in relation to the coming solar minimum. There’s no compelling physics imho that lead to a cooling event but the consensus seems to be that an increase of galactic cosmic rays can be expected due to changes in the suns magnetic field. If such fast moving particles can be affected why not more massive charged bodies? Perhaps we might anticipate an increase in meteorites/comet activity in the atmosphere and more impacts for a while. But not yet.

  4. malagabay says:

    It appears comets were also in short supply during the Maunder Minimum…


  5. Pingback: Getting to Grips with Antarctica | MalagaBay

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