1 Introduction

The concept of the perfectness and constancy of the sun, postulated by Aristotle, was a strong belief for centuries and an official doctrine of Christian and Muslim countries. However, as people had noticed even before the time of Aristotle, some slight transient changes of the sun can be observed even with the naked eye. Although scientists knew about the existence of “imperfect” spots on the sun since the early 17th century, it was only in the 19th century that the scientific community recognized that solar activity varies in the course of an 11-year solar cycle. Solar variability was later found to have many different manifestations, including the fact that the “solar constant” (the amount of total incoming solar electromagnetic radiation in all wavelengths per unit area) is not a constant. The sun appears much more complicated and active than a static hot plasma ball, with a great variety of nonstationary active processes going beyond the adiabatic equilibrium foreseen in the basic theory of sun-as-star. Such transient nonstationary (often eruptive) processes can be broadly regarded as solar activity, in contrast to the so-called “quiet” sun. Solar activity includes active transient and long-lived phenomena on the solar surface, such as spectacular solar flares, sunspots, prominences, coronal mass ejections (CMEs), etc.

The very fact of the existence of solar activity poses an enigma for solar physics, leading to the development of sophisticated models of an upper layer known as the convection zone and the solar corona. The sun is the only star, which can be studied in great detail and thus can be considered as a proxy for cool stars. Quite a number of dedicated ground-based and space-borne experiments are being carried out to learn more about solar variability. The use of the sun as a paradigm for cool stars, leads to a better understanding of the processes driving the broader population of cool sun-like stars. Therefore, studying and modelling solar activity can increase the level of our understanding of nature.

On the other hand, the study of variable solar activity is not of purely academic interest, as it directly affects the terrestrial environment. Although changes in the sun are barely visible without the aid of precise scientific instruments, these changes have great impact on many aspects of our lives. In particular, the heliosphere (a spatial region of about 100 astronomical units) is mainly controlled by the solar magnetic field. This leads to the modulation of galactic cosmic rays (GCRs). Additionally, eruptive and transient phenomena in the sun/corona and in the interplanetary medium can lead to the acceleration of energetic particles with greatly enhanced flux. Such processes can modify the radiation environment on Earth and need to be taken into account for planning and maintaining space missions and even transpolar jet flights. Solar activity can cause, through coupling of solar wind and the Earth’s magnetosphere, strong geomagnetic storms in the magnetosphere and ionosphere, which may disturb radio-wave propagation and navigation-system stability, or induce dangerous spurious currents in long pipes or power lines. Another important aspect is the link between solar-activity variations and the Earth’s climate (see, e.g., the review by Haigh, 2007Jump To The Next Citation Point).

It is important to study solar variability on different timescales. The primary basis for such studies is observational (or reconstructed) data. The sun’s activity is systematically explored in different ways (solar, heliospheric, interplanetary, magnetospheric, terrestrial), including ground-based and space-borne experiments and dedicated missions during the last few decades, thus covering 3 – 4 solar cycles. However, it should be noted that the modern epoch is characterized by unusually-high solar activity dominated by an 11-year cyclicity, and it is not straightforward to extrapolate present knowledge (especially empirical and semi-empirical relationships and models) to a longer timescale. Therefore, the behavior of solar activity in the past, before the era of direct measurements, is of great importance for a variety of reasons. For example, it allows an improved knowledge of the statistical behavior of the solar-dynamo process, which generates the cyclically-varying solar-magnetic field, making it possible to estimate the fractions of time the sun spends in states of very-low activity, what are called grand minima. Such studies require a long time series of solar-activity data. The longest direct series of solar activity is the 400-year-long sunspot-number series, which depicts the dramatic contrast between the (almost spotless) Maunder minimum and the modern period of very high activity. Thanks to the recent development of precise technologies, including accelerator mass spectrometry, solar activity can be reconstructed over multiple millennia from concentrations of cosmogenic isotopes 14C and 10Be in terrestrial archives. This allows one to study the temporal evolution of solar magnetic activity, and thus of the solar dynamo, on much longer timescales than are available from direct measurements.

This paper gives an overview of the present status of our knowledge of long-term solar activity, covering the Holocene (the last 11 millennia). A description of the concept of solar activity and a discussion of observational methods and indices are presented in Section 2. The proxy method of solar-activity reconstruction is described in some detail in Section 3. Section 4 gives an overview of what is known about past solar activity. The long-term averaged flux of solar energetic particles is discussed in Section 5. Finally, conclusions are summarized in Section 6.

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