The Vault

Forty-Three Years of Hand-Drawn Maps of the Surface of the Sun, in One Mesmerizing Video

Every day since 1956, people in mountaintop observatories have been making careful drawings of the sun. Formally called “solar synoptic maps,” the maps show a daily summary of the sun’s activity, including sunspots, solar flares, and other phenomena. The maps are available on the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website, if you’re willing to dig around a little.

Similar solar maps date back to the early 17th century, but many of the drawings in the NOAA collection were created as part of the International Geophysical Year, a 67-country scientific project running from 1957–1959 and across many scientific disciplines. This work coincided with the highest volume of sunspot activity ever recorded, and the drawings were published in a very handsome but sadly hard-to-find boxed set.

In an era of computer-generated imagery, it’s easy to forget that these drawings were made by individuals. Each drawing is initialed, and the NOAA archive also includes ephemera like handwritten notes from the observer. These notes range from the functional (“Sunday, 17 August 1958 – clouds + smoke from forest fires”), to celebrations at the joy of scientific discovery (“Rarely-observed absorption-component … Only once before have I had the pleasure to observe this”), to the nearly poetic (“Weather, suddenly + continually overcast”). One imagines a sort of astronomer/Dharma bum in a remote mountaintop observatory, staring through an eyepiece into the sun.

The digitization of older solar synoptic maps was facilitated by NOAA’s Climate Database Modernization Program, which has funded “data rescue efforts” to make this and other data more accessible to the public. Yet with the exception of the day’s current map, the drawings are shuttled to an FTP server where they remain largely hidden. I’ve pulled approximately 15,000 images drawn at an observatory in Boulder, Colorado, and combined them into the video below, showing an unintended animation crafted over a period of 43 years.

If you’d like to view the individual drawings yourself, you can use the following to connect via FTP:

  • Server:
  • Initial path: stp/space-weather/solar-data/solar-imagery/composites/full-sun-drawings
  • No password necessary!