Revisiting the Sunspot Number

A 400-Year Perspective on the Solar Cycle
  • Frédéric CletteEmail author
  • Leif Svalgaard
  • José M. Vaquero
  • Edward W. Cliver
Part of the Space Sciences Series of ISSI book series (SSSI, volume 53)


Our knowledge of the long-term evolution of solar activity and of its primary modulation, the 11-year cycle, largely depends on a single direct observational record: the visual sunspot counts that retrace the last 4 centuries, since the invention of the astronomical telescope. Currently, this activity index is available in two main forms: the International Sunspot Number initiated by R. Wolf in 1849 and the Group Number constructed more recently by Hoyt and Schatten (Sol. Phys. 179:189–219, 1998a, 181:491–512, 1998b). Unfortunately, those two series do not match by various aspects, inducing confusions and contradictions when used in crucial contemporary studies of the solar dynamo or of the solar forcing on the Earth climate. Recently, new efforts have been undertaken to diagnose and correct flaws and biases affecting both sunspot series, in the framework of a series of dedicated Sunspot Number Workshops. Here, we present a global overview of our current understanding of the sunspot number calibration.

After retracing the construction of those two composite series, we present the new concepts and methods used to self-consistently re-calibrate the original sunspot series. While the early part of the sunspot record before 1800 is still characterized by large uncertainties due to poorly observed periods, the more recent sunspot numbers are mainly affected by three main inhomogeneities: in 1880–1915 for the Group Number and in 1947 and 1980–2014 for the Sunspot Number.

After establishing those new corrections, we then consider the implications on our knowledge of solar activity over the last 400 years. The newly corrected series clearly indicates a progressive decline of solar activity before the onset of the Maunder Minimum, while the slowly rising trend of the activity after the Maunder Minimum is strongly reduced, suggesting that by the mid 18th century, solar activity had already returned to levels equivalent to those observed in recent solar cycles in the 20th century. We finally conclude with future prospects opened by this epochal revision of the Sunspot Number, the first one since Wolf himself, and its reconciliation with the Group Number, a long-awaited modernization that will feed solar cycle research into the 21st century.


Sun Sunspots Sunspot Number Solar cycle Solar activity 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frédéric Clette
    • 1
    Email author
  • Leif Svalgaard
    • 2
  • José M. Vaquero
    • 3
  • Edward W. Cliver
    • 4
  1. 1.World Data Center SILSOObservatoire Royal de BelgiqueBrusselsBelgium
  2. 2.W.W. Hansen Experimental Physics LaboratoryStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  3. 3.Departamento de FísicaUniversidad de ExtremaduraMéridaSpain
  4. 4.National Solar ObservatorySunspotUSA

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