On the last day of August, scientists spotted a teeny-weeny sunspot, breaking a 51-day streak of blemish-free days for the sun. If it had gone just a bit longer, it would have broken a 96-year record of 53 days without any of the magnetic disruptions that cause solar flares. That record was nearly broken last year as well.
Wait, it gets even more exciting.
During what scientists call the Maunder Minimum -- a period of solar inactivity from 1645 to 1715 -- the world experienced the worst of the cold streak dubbed the Little Ice Age. At Christmastime, Londoners ice-skated on the Thames, and New Yorkers (then New Amsterdamers) sometimes walked over the Hudson from Manhattan to Staten Island.
Of course, it could have been a coincidence. The Little Ice Age began before the onset of the Maunder Minimum. Many scientists think volcanic activity was a more likely, or at least a more significant, culprit. Or perhaps the big chill was, in the words of scientist Alan Cutler, writing in the Washington Post in 1997, a "one-two punch from a dimmer sun and a dustier atmosphere."
Well, we just might find out. A new study in the American Geophysical Union's journal Eos suggests that we may be heading into another quiet phase similar to the Maunder Minimum.
Meanwhile, the journal Science reports that a study led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, has finally figured out why increased sunspots have a dramatic effect on the weather, increasing temperatures more than the increase in solar energy should explain. Apparently, sunspots heat the stratosphere, which in turn amplifies the warming of the climate.
Scientists have known for centuries that sunspots affected the climate; they just never understood how. Now, allegedly, the mystery has been solved.
Last month, in another study, also released in Science, Oregon State University researchers claimed to settle the debate over what caused and ended the last Ice Age. Increased solar radiation coming from slight changes in the Earth's rotation, not greenhouse gas levels, were to blame.
What is the significance of all this? To say I have no idea is quite an understatement, but it will have to do.