This is the weakest solar cycle in 100 years, which means no living solar scientist has seen a cycle this weak, and our records of what the sun was doing back then have much less data than is now available. The optimistic view is that we surely learn new things about solar physics:
Speaking on the weak solar activity, Leif Svalgaard of Stanford University told reporters that "none of us alive have ever seen such a weak cycle. So we will learn something."To adapt some of what I wrote back last January to today, the prolonged minimum between cycle 23 and 24 was the second longest since the Dalton minimum of the early 1800s. The thing is, the low activity may not be ending there. In the '90s, astronomers Dr.s William Livingston and Matthew Penn of the Kitt Peak observatory in Arizona noted that their readings on the intensity of sunspots were trending downward. They checked data many times and plotted trend lines. Once they saw the lines, they published a paper showing that by 2015 there may be no sunspots left at all. The paper was not well received, which is fine, but about a decade later they gathered another ten years' worth of data, reanalyzed everything and concluded they were right the first time. (summary pdf here) It's important to say they may well be wrong, but completely independent predictions from NASA and others are saying the next cycle, 25, is going to be even weaker than this one, and may approach quiet sun levels at its peak. Which is to say the cycle simply may not happen.
What does this mean to us? Several things. First the good news: those dire predictions you read about a killer solar flare taking out everything are much less likely than before - and it wasn't very likely to start with. The other side is much less positive. Prolonged solar minima have happened before, and they are associated with mini-ice ages. I use the tentative language because humans simply haven't been able to measure sunspots for most of history. In extended solar minima, the growing seasons become shorter and weather changes to become less friendly to crops. In general, the worst times for human survival in history have been in failed, cold growing seasons, not "global warmth" (huge pdf alert). Widespread food shortages are a real possibility. And while people talk of the possibility of a real ice age, not a mini-ice age, I think we don't know enough about how those start to talk with any credibility.