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Predicting the behavior of a sunspot cycle is fairly reliable once the cycle is well underway (about 3 years after the minimum in sunspot number occurs [see Hathaway, Wilson, and Reichmann Solar Physics 151, 177 (1994)]). Prior to that time the predictions are less reliable but nonetheless equally as important. Planning for satellite orbits and space missions often require knowledge of solar activity levels years in advance.

A number of techniques are used to predict the amplitude of a cycle during the time near and before sunspot minimum. Relationships have been found between the size of the next cycle maximum and the length of the previous cycle, the level of activity at sunspot minimum, and the size of the previous cycle. Among the most reliable techniques are those that use the measurements of changes in the Earth's magnetic field at, and before, sunspot minimum. These changes in the Earth's magnetic field are known to be caused by solar storms but the precise connections between them and future solar activity levels is still uncertain.

Of these "geomagnetic precursor" techniques three stand out. The earliest is from Ohl and Ohl [Solar-Terrestrial Predictions Proceedings, Vol. II. 258 (1979)] They found that the value of the geomagnetic aa index at its minimum was related to the sunspot number during the ensuing maximum. The primary disadvantage of this technique is that the minimum in the geomagnetic aa index often occurs slightly after sunspot minimum so the prediction isn't available until the sunspot cycle has started.

An alternative method is due to Joan Feynman. She separates the geomagnetic aa index into two components: one in phase with and proportional to the sunspot number, the other component is then the remaining signal. She found that this remaining signal faithfully represents the sunspot numbers several years in advance. The maximum in this signal occurs at sunspot minimum and is proportional to the sunspot number during the following maximum. This method does allow for a prediction of the next sunspot maximum at the time of sunspot minimum.

A third method is due to Richard Thompson [Solar Physics 148, 383 (1993)]. He found a relationship between the number of days during a sunspot cycle in which the geomagnetic field was "disturbed" and the amplitude of the next sunspot maximum. His method has the advantage of giving a prediction for the size of the next sunspot maximum well before sunspot minimum.

We have employed these methods along with several others to determine the size of the next sunspot cycle using a technique that weights the different predictions by their reliability. [See Hathaway, Wilson, and Reichmann J. Geophys. Res. 104, 22,375-22,388 (1999)] This analysis indicated (by mid-1996) a maximum sunspot number of about 154 21. We then use the shape of the sunspot cycle as described by Hathaway, Wilson, and Reichmann [Solar Physics 151, 177 (1994)] and determine a starting time for the cycle by fitting the data to produce a prediction of the monthly sunspot numbers through the next cycle. We find a starting time of July 1996 with minimum occuring in October 1996. The predicted numbers are available in a text file, as a GIF image, and as a Postscript file. As the cycle progresses, the prediction process switches over to giving more weight to the fitting of the monthly values to the cycle shape function. At this phase of cycle 23 we now give full weight to the curve-fitting technique of Hathaway, Wilson, and Reichmann Solar Physics 151, 177 (1994). The two parameters for this fit (cycle amplitude and cycle starting time) have remained unchanged since early 1999.

Note: These predictions are for "smoothed" International Sunspot Numbers. The smoothing is usually over time periods of about a year or more so both the daily and the monthly values for the International Sunspot Number should fluctuate about our predicted numbers. Also note that the "Boulder" numbers reported daily at are typically about 35% higher than the International sunspot number.

Another indicator of the level of solar activity is the flux of radio emission from the Sun at a wavelength of 10.7 cm (2.8 GHz frequency). This flux has been measured daily since 1947. It is an important indicator of solar activity because it tends to follow the changes in the solar ultraviolet that influence the Earth's upper atmosphere and ionosphere. Many models of the upper atmosphere use the 10.7 cm flux (F10.7) as input to determine atmospheric densities and satellite drag. F10.7 has been shown to follow the sunspot number quite closely and similar prediction techniques can be used. Our predictions for F10.7 are available in a text file, as a GIF image, and as a Postscript file. Current values for F10.7 can be found at:

For other sunspot cycle predictions see: JoAnn Joselyn, Richard Thompson, Ken Schatten.

Web Links

Sunspot Index Data Center - International Sunspot Number data archive

Royal Greenwich Observatory/USAF/NOAA Sunspot Record 1874-2001 - Sunspot Positions and Area data archive

Solar Radio Monitoring Programme - 10.7 cm Solar Radio Flux data archive

Solar Cycle 23 Project: Summary of Panel Findings - Cycle 23 prediction - Group Consensus

The Amplitude of Cycle 23 - Richard Thompson's Prediction Method

Solar Activity and the Solar Cycle - Ken Schatten's Prediction Method

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Author: Dr. David H. Hathaway,, (256) 961-7610
Mail Code SD50, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL 35812
Responsible Official: Dr. John M. Davis,, (256) 961-7600
Mail Code SD50, NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL 35812
Last revised 2005 July 06 - D. H. Hathaway