Editor: Wondering about the long cold winter? Maybe the sun has something to do with it. Please read on:
In 1610, shortly after viewing the sun with his new telescope, Galileo Galilei (or was it Thomas Harriot?) made the first European observations of Sunspots. Continuous daily observations were started at the Zurich Observatory in 1849 and earlier observations have been used to extend the records back to 1610. The sunspot number is calculated by first counting the number of sunspot groups and then the number of individual sunspots.
The "sunspot number" is then given by the sum of the number of individual sunspots and ten times the number of groups. Since most sunspot groups have, on average, about ten spots, this formula for counting sunspots gives reliable numbers even when the observing conditions are less than ideal and small spots are hard to see. Monthly averages (updated monthly) of the sunspot numbers (181 kb JPEG image), (307 kb pdf-file), (62 kb text file) show that the number of sunspots visible on the sun waxes and wanes with an approximate 11-year cycle.
(Note: there are actually at least two "official" sunspot numbers reported. The International Sunspot Number is compiled by the Solar Influences Data Analysis Center in Belgium. The NOAA sunspot number is compiled by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The numbers tabulated in spot_num.txt are the monthly averages (SSN) and standard deviation (DEV) derived from the International Sunspot Numbers)
The Maunder Minimum
Early records of sunspots indicate that the Sun went through a period of inactivity in the late 17th century. Very few sunspots were seen on the Sun from about 1645 to 1715 (38 kb JPEG image). Although the observations were not as extensive as in later years, the Sun was in fact well observed during this time and this lack of sunspots is well documented. This period of solar inactivity also corresponds to a climatic period called the "Little Ice Age" when rivers that are normally ice-free froze and snow fields remained year-round at lower altitudes. There is evidence that the Sun has had similar periods of inactivity in the more distant past. The connection between solar activity and terrestrial climate is an area of on-going research.