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Is the Sun heading for a 'grand minima?'

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Last month it became official: this solar maximum is the weakest in over a century. These findings came in the form of a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Speaking on the weak solar activity, Leif Svalgaard of Stanford University told reporters that "none of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle. So we will learn something.”

Solar activity nearly flat lining, the next question arises: why? According to astronomer Brad Carter of the University of Queensland, the Sun may be exhibiting behavior characteristic of cycles that are centuries long.

According to Carter, there are more cycles to the solar activity than the familiar 11-year cycle that peaked last year. These longer cycles are known as “grand maxima./minima,” the most famous of which was the Maunder Minimum, which lasted from the mid 1600s into the early 1700s, during which solar activity was virtually nil. Carter's opinion: the Sun could be entering another grand minima, which brings up other issues for Earthly weather.

The period of the Maunder Minimum was a time during which solar activity was virtually nonexistent. It also coincided with a time frame known as “the Little Ice Age,” a sudden drop in Earth's climate that saw record cold temperatures and, depending on how you count, lasted for over a century.

The question: the last time the solar activity was so low, Earth's climate experienced a dramatic cooling, so will it happen again? So far, the research into the solar activity/Earthly climate connection is inconclusive.

Is the Sun heading toward a minimum in a centuries long cycles or was the low solar activity of the last 11-year cycle an anomaly? Right now, no one knows. Needless to say, scientists will intently be eying the next 11-year solar cycle.

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