More data needed before making such a 'leap,' says astronomer

The lack of sunspots this year has some scientists wondering if this could be an indicator that much colder weather is on the way.

They argue it could be the start of an extended period of solar indolence that would more than counter the effect of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions.

From the middle of the 17th century to the early 18th century, which is known as the Little Ice Age, sunspots were very rare and this reduced activity is believed by some to be related to the lower temperatures which occurred then.

On more than 200 days so far this year, no sunspots have been spotted. This makes the sun more unblemished than it has been in any year since 1954 when it was spotless for 241 days.

The sun goes through a regular 11-year cycle and is currently emerging from the quietest part of the cycle, known as the solar minimum. But even for that phase, it has been unusually quiet with little roiling of the magnetic fields that cause sunspots.

Sunspots are cooler regions on the sun and show up as "dark" to those viewing them from the Earth, Andrew Fazekas of Montreal, an astronomer and correspondent for The Weather Network, said in a phone interview. He said they can be visible from Earth without the aid of a telescope.

He said they have intense magnetic activity and solar flares (or storms) originate in magnetically active regions around visible sunspot groupings.

These flares come off the sun aimed towards the Earth, said Fazekas. He said they produce the "beautiful auroras" known as the Northern Lights, but can also knock out communication satellites and even power grids.

A prime example of the latter, he said, was the power blackout on March 13, 1989, which lasted nine hours and affected six million people in central Canada and the eastern United States. And for certain, sunspots would have to have some effect on the weather on Earth, he added.

Although the lull in sunspots this year could be reflective of some weather change, Fazekas says it would still be a big leap to make at this time. "Scientists do not have enough data to know the grand patterns of the sun over the centuries," he said.

You have to remember that the sun is more than five billion years old and is in the middle of its life span as a star, said the astronomer. He said there could be cycles involving sunspots that re-occur only every so many thousands of years.

Fazekas said solar radiation, earth patterns, the integral workings of the sun and the earth-sun connection are all part of a relatively new area of research. He said the space satellites have been a huge help to scientists in learning more in this field of study.