Cold sun rising
New studies flip climate-change notions upside down
So what is a “solar minimum”?
Our sun doesn’t maintain a constant intensity. Instead, it cycles in spans of approximately 11 years. When it’s at its maximum, it has the highest number of sunspots on its surface in that particular cycle. When it’s at its minimum, it has almost none. When there are more sunspots, the sun is brighter. When there are fewer, the sun radiates less heat toward Earth.
But that’s not the only cooling effect of a solar minimum. A dim sun doesn’t deflect cosmic rays away from Earth as efficiently as a bright sun. So, when these rays enter our atmosphere, they seed clouds, which in turn cool our planet even more and increase precipitation in the form of rain, snow and hail.
Since the early 1800s we have enjoyed healthy solar cycles and the rich agriculture and mild northern temperatures that they guarantee. During the Middle Ages, however, Earth felt the impact of four solar minimums over the course of 400 years.
The last Maunder Minimum and its accompanying mini-Ice Age saw the most consistent cold, continuing into the early 1800s.
The last time we became concerned about cooler temperatures – possibly dangerously cooler – was in the 1970s. Global temperatures have declined since the 1940s, as measured by Pacific Decadal Oscillation. The PDO Index is a recurring pattern of ocean-atmosphere climate variability centred over the Pacific Ocean. Determined by deep currents, it is said to shift between warm and cool modes. Some scientists worried that it might stay cool and drag down the Atlantic Decadal Oscillation with it, spurring a new Ice Age. The fear was exacerbated by the fact that Earth has been in the current inter-glacial period for 10,000 years (depending on how the starting point is gauged).
If Earth were to enter the next Ice Age too quickly, glaciers could advance much further south, rainforests could turn into savannah, and sea levels could drop dramatically, causing havoc.
The BBC, all three major American TV networks, Time magazine and the New York Times all ran feature stories highlighting the scare. Fortunately, by 1978 the PDO Index shifted back to warm and the fear abated.
Climate science vs the sceptics
By the 1990s the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had formed the “97 per cent consensus”. The consensus was that Earth was warming more than it should, not just due to natural causes but also human activity. This was termed Anthropogenic Global Warming. The culprit was identified as carbon dioxide generated from the burning of fossil fuels.
CO2 is a greenhouse gas and its increase in the atmosphere could be dangerous, the panel claimed. Some of these scientists, particularly those working at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Britain’s Meteorological Office, have gone so far as to declare CO2 as the primary driver of climate on Earth. This modern “climate science” has stirred unprecedented controversy in the field. Sceptics, clinging to more traditional approaches, say the science has been corrupted by the billions of dollars in government funding for climate-change research and agencies and industries that claim to be “fighting climate change”. The counter-argument is that the sceptics are backed by the oil, gas and coal industries or are affiliated with conservative political groups.
The biggest bone of contention between the two groups is how the data are assessed. In the United States, the recorded temperature data go back to 1880, and elsewhere not even that far. Those data have to be “stapled on” to the ice-core data used to determine temperatures in earlier times. This has led to controversial representations, such as the infamous “hockey stick” graph released by the IPCC that gave the impression the world is hotter now than ever. Many scientists slammed the graph as wholly unrealistic, insisting that previous eras, such as the medieval warm period and the Holocene maximum were warmer than today.
Another issue is the urban “heat island” effect. Black asphalt roads and concrete structures absorb heat from the sun. Roy Spencer, a climatologist at the University of Alabama and former IPCC alumnus, charged in 2013 that the NOAA was “warming up” readings at rural temperature stations to match the urban ones rather than the reverse. A spokesman for the NOAA responded but stopped short of denying it.
Around 2000, the PDO Index started to blow cold again, possibly causing global warming to “pause”, as the mainstream scientists describe it. IPCC-affiliated scientists as well as Nasa and the NOAA attribute the pause to other factors. This is when the plot thickens.
Solar cycle 24 – two cycles prior the cycle that’s expected to bottom out into a Maunder Minimum – was weak. In 2013-14 it reached its maximum far below average. Meanwhile extreme cold-weather anomalies have occurred around the world. Last year “polar vortices” slammed into the central US and Siberia as a third hovered over the Atlantic. All 50 US states, including Hawaii, had temperatures below freezing for the first time in recorded history. Snowfall records were broken in cities in the US, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and elsewhere. Southern American states and central Mexico, where snow is rare, got heavy snow, as did the Middle East.
This past summer the cold didn’t let up, with more temperature records across the US and rare summer snows seen in Canada, the US and China. Birds have migrated early in the last two years. Antarctic sea ice set a new record in 2013 and it was broken again in 2014.
Not even Thailand was immune. In 2014 Bangkok hit its coldest low in 30 years, while 63 lives were lost in the North.
Scientists at the Climate and Environmental Physics and Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Berne in Switzerland have recently backed up theories that support the sun’s importance in determining the climate on Earth. A paper published last year by the American Meteorological Society contradicts claims by IPCC scientists that the sun couldn’t be responsible for major shifts in climate. Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, rejected IPCC assertions that solar variations don’t matter. Among the many studies and authorities she cited was the National Research Council’s recent report “The Effects of Solar Variability on Earth’s Climate”.
Other researchers and organisations are also predicting global cooling – the Russian Academy of Science, the Astronomical Institute of the Slovak Academy of Scientists, the Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism Russia, Victor Manuel Velesco Herrera at the National University of Mexico, the Bulgarian Institute of Astronomy, Dr Tim Patterson at Carleton University in Canada, Drs Lin Zhen at Nanjing University in China, just to name a few.
We conclude with a bit of good news, though. Recent research has determined that the famous Stradivarius violin owes its unique, esteemed sound to the last Maunder Minimum. The solar condition changed the texture of the trees that provided the wood from which the instrument was crafted. So lovers of classical music can place their orders for the next generation of incomparable violins, coming – giving the trees time to mature – in about 100 years.