There were lots of sunspots at solar max in 2001. During the "deep" solar min that followed sunspots were very rare for several years.
Click on image for full size
Images courtesy of SOHO/NASA/ESA.

Where have all the sunspots gone?

The Sun is missing its spots! Sunspots, that is. Most of the time there are at least a few sunspots on the Sun. Sometimes there are lots of sunspots. Scientists call those times "solar max". Other times there are fewer sunspots. Those times are called "solar min". Normally sunspots come and go in a cycle that lasts about 11 years.

There was a solar max in the sunspot cycle around 2000. Scientists expected a solar min to follow a few years later. They didn't expect it to be such a "deep" minimum. There were hardly any sunspots at all from 2007 to 2009. That is very odd. Usually, even at solar min, there are some sunspots. During this solar min there have hardly been any at all. Also, solar min seems to be late. This sunspot cycle may last about 13 years instead of the usual 11 years or so.

Why are scientists interested in this extreme sunspot minimum? Sunspots tell us a lot about how active the Sun is. When the Sun has lots of spots, its magnetic field is all scrambled up. It gives off more radiation, especially the high-energy and dangerous X-rays and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Explosions on the Sun - solar flares and coronal mass ejections - happen more often. Those explosions can cause space weather "storms" throughout our Solar System. When the Sun is calm and has few spots, there is less radiation and fewer explosions that cause space weather storms.

Scientists wonder what will happen next. What does this extreme sunspot minimum mean for the future? Will the next sunspot max have fewer sunspots, or more? Or will it be an average solar max with a normal number of sunspots? We'll just have to wait and see!

Last modified June 26, 2009 by Randy Russell.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more


Sunspots are dark, planet-sized regions that appear on the "surface" of the Sun. Sunspots are "dark" because they are colder than the areas around them. A large sunspot might have a temperature of about...more

The Sun's Magnetic Field

The Sun has a very large and very complex magnetic field. The magnetic field at an average place on the Sun is around 1 Gauss, about twice as strong as the average field on the surface of Earth (around...more


Radiation comes in two basic types: electromagnetic radiation transmitted by photons, and particle radiation consisting of electrons, protons, alpha particles, and so forth. Electromagnetic radiation,...more

The Solar Corona

Rising above the Sun's chromosphere , the temperature jumps sharply from a few tens of thousands of kelvins to as much as a few million kelvins in the Sun's outer atmosphere, the solar corona. Understanding...more

Solar Eclipses Were not Always Enjoyed

Eclipses have been watched for centuries, but it was only recently that we understood what really occurs. Eclipses have always been fascinating to watch, but they weren't always welcome. For many years,...more

The Photosphere - the "Surface" of the Sun

Most of the energy we receive from the Sun is the visible (white) light emitted from the photosphere. The photosphere is one of the coolest regions of the Sun (6000 K), so only a small fraction (0.1%)...more

Solar Eclipses

An eclipse of the Sun occurs when the Earth passes through the Moon's shadow. A total eclipse of the Sun takes place only during a new moon, when the Moon is directly between the Sun and the Earth. When...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA