Observations of the Sun over thousands of years have shown that spots appear on its surface. Some days there may be none, whilst at others times there may be as many as 200 or more. Sunspots are curious. They appear in latitudinal bands about 40 degrees either side of the solar equator. One series begins in the northern hemisphere and works down across the solar equator to a position about 40 degrees latitude, with the next series starting at this southernmost point and moving back up. Differentiating one sunspot or cluster of sunspots from another is not easy. As the Sun spins at different rates with some spots grouping together or merging, confusion arises. Each series takes a little over 11 Earth years. From one north-start series to the next is approximately 22 years. There is, as yet, no general consensus as to what causes sunspots to occur, but here is little doubt that the gravitational pull exerted on the Sun by the planets plays a part.
The presence of a large number of sunspots has several effects. Short-wave radio transmission can be disrupted for days at a time when the maximum point in the sunspot cycle is reached – a potentially serious difficulty for those travelling at latitude extremes or across the seas8. Disturbances have also been noted in computer technology and in the performance of orbiting satellites. These disturbances in the sun also affect radio waves. Those travelling in aircraft at a time of peak sunspot activity are subjected to the equivalent of an X-ray during their journey. The Earth’s electro-magnetic field too is affected by changes in sunspot number – a fact that may be of interest to those studying Earth movement, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes9.
It is perfectly possible that sunspots affect all of us to a greater or lesser extent. An interesting piece of medical research showed that in 72 per cent of 237 cases10, a major change in patients’ condition occurred on days of high sunspot activity and when these sunspots were at minimum latitude. This latter comment is interesting in that it implies that the actual latitude of the sunspots within their cycle enhances any effect.
Further study – this time of the New York stock market11 – suggested that the fewer the sunspots, the greater people’s optimism or lack of willingness to subject positive forecasts to intense scrutiny and common sense. Thus, years when sunspot activity is at a minimum are commonly bull-market years. By contrast, the greater the number of sunspots, the more pessimistic and ‘bearish’ people become. Knowledge of where we are within the sunspot cycle looks to have special value for investors.
The actual sunspot activity on any given day varies widely. President George W. Bush was born on 6 July 1946 during a solar maximum period. The recorded sunspot activity for that day was 120. By contrast, Prime Minister Tony Blair was born on 6 May 1953 at the solar minimum. Only 8 sunspots were recorded that day12. These facts alone might suggest that Blair is essentially an optimist. Bush, on the other hand, may be better attuned to defensive mechanisms on the basis that the worse is yet to come.
Given that the attitude of leaders has a great impact on a nation during the period of their office, it is interesting to look at the sunspot numbers applying on the dates of birth of key leaders of the twentieth century. Consider that Margaret Thatcher, Mao Tse Tung and Theodor Roosevelt were all born, like George W. Bush, within periods of high activity. The situation was very different for Adolf Hitler (no sunspots) and Churchill (low sunspot activity). In the case of the latter two, there was an assumption – perhaps even arrogance – that their vision would be achieved. Perhaps it is the case that nil or low sunspot activity contributes to clarity of purpose, whilst high activity allows for plural possibility. This is far too simplistic of course. Yet, it may be of interest to look at the activity applying on important dates and to see if it falls within the mean of a period, or is exceptional.
The start of the 21ST century has seen a curious phenomenon in the sunspot cycle. The expected peak occurred but, unusually, a ‘double top’ followed, i.e. sunspots hit a record high, reduced over subsequent days, and then reached that earlier high level once more. Further, in October 2003, two giant sunspots were identified13. Solar scientists could not recall a previous occasion when such activity had occurred. Clearly something unusual is occurring, suggesting some disturbance in the natural sunspot rhythm. The 11.2-year cycle moves from low to high and returns to low activity, although the numbers of sunspots do not replicate. Indeed, the high numbers (200+ per day) recorded in the opening months of the 21ST century have not been witnessed since 198014. Had the cycle worked as in the past, the high would have been reached and then there would have been a slow tailing off until the minimum was reached in around six years later. The fact that this did not occur might suggest that anticipated lows will not be reached until a little later – say 2008. From there the phase would move upward again, reaching sunspot highs in 2013/14 and lows at the end of our twenty-year period around 2020.
In terms of stock market movement we might conclude a general bullish trend as the sunspot numbers drop, into 2007/8, and a bear-trend period roughly six years later as maximum levels are reached once more. This assumes, of course, that the cycle follows its usual pattern. Any change in the cycle warrants our close attention if we are to draw any conclusions or make investment decisions based on it. The last time the ‘double top’ phenomenon was observed was in the opening years of the 20TH century15. A little over a decade later the number of sunspots had tailed off to reach solar minimum in 191416. As we know, all hell broke loose that year as World War broke out. It is not inconceivable that the same could occur in the early years of this new century. As the number of sunspots falls from this double-peak activity, the potential for hostilities between nations increases. Indeed, this particular perspective on the correlation between aggravated activity on Earth and cosmic tension is just one of several to signal a problematic period at the end of the first decade of the new Millennium.
Some scientists have speculated that the wide variation in the numbers of sunspots occurring at any time is a factor in terrestrial climate change. Between the years 1645 and 1715 (the Maunder Minimum17) virtually no sunspots were sighted. However, in any given 30-year period over the past hundred years, 40,000 – 50,000 sunspots have been recorded18. Between 1672 and 1699, the scientist Sporer found less than 50 to have been observed19. Some have drawn the conclusion that this lack of activity was a major contributory factor in the colder weather experienced on the Earth through the period. Such a period has not recurred – but presumably, could. We know that a solar minimum period is due around 2007. Should this see the start of a prolonged period devoid of sunspots entirely – and this is something we would know quickly – major adjustments in thinking would be necessary. Should such conditions occur, investors in particular might want to take immediate action.
Predicting solar activity is a science still in its infancy. Further studies will need to be undertaken before it can be determined whether or not the solar latitudes at which sunspots occur have a correlation with life on Earth. What is important for the moment is that we are aware of the value of information about solar power – in all its many forms.