Since 1990, solar astronomers Matthew Penn and William Livingston of the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, have been studying the magnetic strength of sunspots using a measurement called Zeeman splitting. Named after the Dutch physicist who discovered it, the splitting is the distance that appears between a pair of lines in a spectrograph of the light given off by iron atoms in the sun’s atmosphere. The wider the splitting, the greater the intensity of the magnetic field that created it. After examining the Zeeman splitting of 1500 sunspots, Penn and Livingston conclude that the average magnetic field strength of sunspots has declined from about 2700 gauss—the average strength of Earth’s field is less than 1 gauss—to about 2000 gauss. The reasons for the decrease are not clearly understood, but if the trend continues, sunspot field strength will drop to 1500 gauss by as early as 2016. Because 1500 gauss is the minimum required to produce sunspots, Livingston says, at that level they would no longer be possible.
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