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What are Sunspots?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Sunspots are areas on the sun's photosphere, or surface, which appear darker than the rest of the sun. The photosphere of the sun, or any gaseous celestial body, is the layer of gases which makes up the visible surface. On the sun, the photosphere is extremely deep, stretching for hundreds of miles. Beneath the photosphere lies the solar core, the powerhouse of the sun, which produces energy and heat. Primarily this is accomplished by converting hydrogen into helium in a form of nuclear reaction. Sunspots stand out strongly against the bright surface of the sun, and have been observed for thousands of years.

In the 1600s, sunspots were more closely documented and generally accepted. Numerous writings and drawings from previous periods show that observers saw areas of apparent darkness on the surface of the sun. Sunspots appear dark because they are cooler than the rest of the surface of the sun, but they are actually extremely bright. They are irregularly shaped, and tend to appear in clusters or groups, always within five to 35 degrees North and South of the sun's equator.

The cause of sun spots is a magnetic storm. The spots serve as a visual indicator of increased magnetic activity on that area of the sun, and they are commonly accompanied by coronal mass ejections, better known as solar flares. Heavy magnetic activity can impact life on Earth by disrupting communications and the weather, and may have led to climate anomalies in the past.

The sun is not the only celestial body to have characteristic spots marking magnetic activity. On other stars, the dark marks are known as “starspots.” In all cases, they appear to run in cycles. The sun has an 11 year solar cycle with periods of increased activity at the beginning and the end of the cycle. This cycle has been documented and studied since the 1800s, when astronomers began to probe more deeply into sunspots and the solar system in general.

Sometimes, sunspots are so large that they can actually be seen with the naked eye, although this would cause retinal damage. However, using filters and a weak telescope can reveal sunspots during periods of high activity. Astronomy observatories use heavy duty telescopes and roving space craft to aid them in their studies of sun spots. Published images of sun spots can be found, often with special filters applied to reveal solar flares and magnetic hot spots associated with the sunspots.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By hamje32 — On Jun 07, 2011

@miriam98 - I’ve heard the same thing. Actually some scientists have noticed that current sunspot activity is greatly diminished compared to when global warming became a real concern in the late 1990s, and as a result the Earth is getting cooler.

I can understand the need to make that correlation. In my opinion any attempt to rule out the activity of the sun as having some influence (it is, after all, the sun which warms the Earth) would be foolish; however whether it is the primary cause, I don’t know. I’m sure the debates will continue.

By miriam98 — On Jun 06, 2011

Years ago when I followed the global warming debate with some enthusiasm, I heard that some scientists were claiming sunspot activity was the prime cause of global warming and not carbon emissions.

They studied climate change over a hundred year period and noticed that global temperatures seemed to rise and fall in conjunction with sunspot cycles.

In short, the more sunspots, the more warming, and vice-versa. I don’t know if that’s really true but it’s interesting to get a different perspective on the topic.

By anon155714 — On Feb 24, 2011

This was very helpful, thank you!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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