Do Sunspots Cycles Forecast the Rain?

As an editor at Sky & Telescope, it's my job to read every paper and press release with a fair dose of skepticism. Just because it was published in a scientific journal doesn't mean it is correct. So when we got wind of the paper published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research entitled "Sunspots, El Niño, and the levels of Lake Victoria, East Africa," I was a little dubious.

Sun on October 23rd
Could the Sun's sunspot cycle predict weather on Earth?

As the press release details, the paper correlates sunspot records with water levels in Africa's Lake Victoria. More rain means more water and therefore a correlation means that the solar cycle can be used to forecast rain trends. The lead scientist on the study, J. Curt Stager (Paul Smith's College), says in the release, "With the help of these findings, we can now say when especially rainy seasons are likely to occur, several years in advance."

Maybe.

We know sunspots and weather have something to do with each other. After all, from the mid 1600s to the early 1700s, Earth endured a period famously known as the Maunder Minimum. During that time the Sun had an extreme dearth of sunspots. Many experts also associate this period with the Little Ice Age, a time of bitterly cold winters. The connection between sunspots and weather is a major bone of contention in the battle over the cause for global warming too. Many people blame the Sun for global warming instead of human activity.

But back to this paper. Are sunspot patterns predicting rainy seasons in East Africa?

The answer, it appears, is testable. The team predicts wet weather about a year or so before the next solar maximum in 2011–12. Moreover the paper concludes by highlighting the economic impact that rain has on the region. The authors strongly urge other scientists to look deeper into the possible connection between Sun cycles and weather patterns.

But what do you think? Should we be throwing more money toward solar astronomy to answer these questions?

8 thoughts on “Do Sunspots Cycles Forecast the Rain?

  1. Allen Thomson

    “Should we be throwing more money toward solar astronomy to answer these questions?” No, or not much. Solar astronomy could probably use more funding overall up to and including a couple more SOHOs spaced around the sun to give a full view of it continuously. But these correlation studies typically don’t go much of anywhere. I’d recommend spending a modest amount, maybe a few hundred $k per year, on a running data analysis project to see what can be developed. Then revisit the question in ten years or so and see if anything more seems warranted.

  2. Allen Thomson

    “Should we be throwing more money toward solar astronomy to answer these questions?” No, or not much. Solar astronomy could probably use more funding overall up to and including a couple more SOHOs spaced around the sun to give a full view of it continuously. But these correlation studies typically don’t go much of anywhere. I’d recommend spending a modest amount, maybe a few hundred $k per year, on a running data analysis project to see what can be developed. Then revisit the question in ten years or so and see if anything more seems warranted.

  3. Brian

    I think much more needs to be spent in this area to answer some important questions. If there is a sunspot cycle component to the weather trends on earth, this could have a significant impact on how we approach finding ways to combat global warming. Here is a link to an article in New Scientist that gives a general overview of people and concepts flying around about this issue.

  4. Mark Wood

    There are now several, separate, correlations between solar activity and the weather. In my opinion the evidence that there is some form of connection between solar activity and the weather is becoming quite compelling.
    However there is currently no properly satisfactory theory for how this influence arises. This is where the money needs to be spent, not on gathering further correlations.

  5. Jim Hardwick

    I agree with Mark Wood. There are lots of correlations between solar activity and weather. What we need is an explanation of the cause and effect. Several decades ago I found that variation in the annual landings of several species of demersal fish in California had the same period as variation in sunspot numbers. If we understood how sun spot numbers could influence weather and oceanography, we just might be able to predict successful reproduction and growth of fish populations. This could be of great economic value.

  6. Glenn Muller

    Gimme a break! Expecting sunspots to be a weather barometer is like thinking that the daily horoscope pertains to you, personally.
    Here we are, in the middle of a really quiet sunspot phase, and, where my location has had very little rain fall, other areas are experiencing catastrophic flooding.
    There may be a link between the sun, global warming, and overall levels of precipitation, but IMHO specific modeling that would produce timely and useful information is the realm of fantasy.
    By the way, has anyone seen my umbrella?

  7. Brian Hohner

    I have worked with the Provincial government Forest Service for 30 years now, and I have noticed and confirmed (to myself, at least) a definite correlation between Solar cycle and the incidence of large uncontrollable fires.
    Although we can get large fires that happen outside of this cycle (El Nino events for example) – there is an eleven year pattern of ‘clumps’ of bad fire years.
    1945-48, 1956-58, 1968-70, 1980-82 and 1993-95.
    The cycle appears to slightly lag behind Solar max much like the incidence of Aurora peak activity.
    In broad meteorological explanation, the jet stream in those years is further north and prone to form ‘Omega blocks’ – where blocking high pressure zones become entrenched on the lee of the Rockies and persist for weeks. With long northern summer days, forests dry out at a terrific rate. Apparently, changes in the North polar vortex allow the jet stream to move further north.
    Coincidence? Interesting to speculate and observe.

  8. Tom Fleming

    If I may broaden this commentary a bit regarding where to put money… My concern regards where we are putting money on a global scale to study the warming climate. If we allow for the concept that man’s contribution to warming is relatively small, then we need to be preparing for the inevitable. The problem becomes one of relocating the critical coastal population worldwide. This includes vital infrastructure… ports, financial, political. The disruption (if we delay) will be catastrophic. Some money should be going into how to relocate 1.2 to 2 billion people without crisis and chaos.
    The money today should be going into the science that will reveal our path so that we may plan accordingly.

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