Could reduced sunspots be tied to temperatures on Earth?
That's what has astrophysicists and meteorologists wondering as the sun enters a prolonged "quiet period," a deviation from the usual 11-year sunspot cycle in which the dark blobs on our star's surface ebb and flow, reports National Geographic News.
And there may be a link to global warming — or, in this case, cooling. Current theories link an earlier solar quiet time to the "Little Ice Age," a cold snap that lasted from about 1300 to 1800 in Europe and North America.
During such "solar minimums," as they're called, the sun dims a bit, magnetic activity is reduced and solar storms are fewer. No one knows how long each will last until it's over.
The Maunder Minimum, a period of extremely low sunspot activity from about 1645 to 1715, coincided with the coldest part of the Little Ice Age, when Dutch canals regularly froze during the winter.
This past January, the Dutch canals again froze, for the first time in 16 years.
But scientists say it may be too early to tell if this solar minimum will really have a prolonged effect.
"There are many uncertainties," Jose Abreu, a doctoral candidate in Switzerland, tells National Geographic News. "We don't know the sensitivity of the climate to changes in solar intensity. In my opinion, I wouldn't play with things I don't know."