9/27/2008

Sunspots. Ready to Chill Out?

Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
  - Sir Arthur Eddington

You probably haven’t heard much about Solar Cycle 24, the current cycle that our sun has just entered. However if Solar Cycle 24 becomes a household term, our lifestyles could be taking a dramatic turn for the worse.

Solar Cycle 24 could mark a time of dramatic long-term change in the climate. According to geophysicist Philip Chapman, a former NASA astronaut, scientist and former president of the National Space Society, "It is time to put aside the global warming dogma, at least to begin contingency planning about what to do if we are moving into another little ice age."

In recent months the sun has lost its spots. By this point in the solar cycle, sunspots would ordinarily be present in significant numbers.  If the sun does not soon revert to its "normal" behavior, and the speculation in the scientific community is growing that it won’t – we could be entering a major new global cooling period.

This happened during the Little Ice Age, a period starting  around 1625 and lasting for centuries, says NASA’s Goddard Space Center, which  claims that the absence of sunspots is linked to the cold that then descended on Earth. During the coldest part of the Little Ice Age, a time known as the Maunder Minimum, astronomers saw only about 50 sunspots over a 30-year period (see chart below), less than one half of 1% of the sunspots that would normally have been expected. Other Minimums  also corresponded to times of unusual cold.

ssn_yearly

During the Little Ice Age, the Thames froze over. In what had previously been a warm Europe , growing seasons in England and Continental Europe generally became short and unreliable, which led to shortages and famine. But these hardships were nothing compared to the more northerly countries. Glaciers advanced rapidly in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and North America, rendering vast tracts of land uninhabitable. The Arctic pack ice extended so far south that several reports describe Eskimos landing their kayaks in Scotland. Finland’s population fell by one-third, Iceland’s by half, and the Viking colonies in Greenland were abandoned altogether -- as were many Inuit communities. The cold in North America spread so far south that  in the winter of 1780  New York Harbor froze, enabling people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island.

In the same way that the Earth cooled when sunspots disappeared, the Earth warmed when sunspot activity became pronounced. The warm period about 1000 years ago known as the Medieval Warm Period — a time of bounty in which grapes grew in England and Greenland was colonized — was also a time of high sunspot activity, called the Medieval Maximum. Since 1900, Earth has experienced what astronomers call “the Modern Maximum” — the 20th century has again been a time of high sunspot activity, accompanied by cries of "global warming" a - la Al Gore.

But the 1900s are over, along with the high temperatures that accompanied them. The last 10 years have seen no increase in temperatures — they reached a plateau and then remained there — and the last year saw a precipitous decline. How much lower and for how long the temperatures will fall, if at all, no one yet knows — the science is far from settled on what drives climate.

Several renowned scientists have been predicting for some time that the world could enter a period of cooling right around now, with consequences that could be dire. “The next little ice age would be much worse than the previous one and much more harmful than anything warming may do,” says Dr. Chapman.

The four major agencies tracking Earth’s temperature, including NASA’s Goddard Institute, report that the Earth cooled 0.7 degree Celsius in 2007, the fastest decline in the age of instrumentation, putting us back to where the Earth was in 1930.

John Casey of the Space and Science Research Center: “The key difference for this next Bi-Centennial Cycle’s impact versus the last is that we will have over 8 billion mouths to feed in the next coldest years where as we had only 1 billion the last time. Among other effects like social and economic disruption, we are facing the real prospect of the ‘perfect storm of global food shortages’ in the next climate change. In answer to the question, everyone on the street will be affected.”

As global cooling affects crop output and commodity prices, it also affects the global economy, causing a general global contraction in GDP’s, swings in interest rates, and other more subtle effects. I’m not about to propose that it was the solar cycle that caused the recent seizures in the commercial paper markets that frightened the Fed into coming up with their current $700 Billion emergency bailout package, but I would not be surprised if it did. At any rate I have serious doubts that it was “the failed policies of the Bush Administration”. There are far greater forces at work here. See here for more on this.

Theodor Landscheit, whose research on the effect of the sun’s interaction with the center of mass of our Solar System has enabled him to make some uncanny predictions, had this to say over 10 years ago:  “We need not wait until 2030 to see whether the forecast of the next deep Gleissberg minimum is correct. A declining trend in solar activity and global temperature should become manifest long before the deepest point in the development. The current 11-year sunspot cycle 23 with its considerably weaker activity seems to be a first indication of the new trend, especially as it was predicted on the basis of solar motion cycles two decades ago. As to temperature, only El Niño periods should interrupt the downward trend, but even El Niños should become less frequent and strong. The outcome of this further long-range climate forecast solely based on solar activity may be considered to be a touchstone of the IPCC's hypothesis of man-made global warming.“

Unfortunately, Dr. Landscheit died in 2004, so we no longer have the benefit of his potentially astute research.

So with the recent appearance of a solitary sunspot very late in the game, we are now at the beginning of Solar Cycle 24 (the scientific designation). Chill out, fire up your 10MPG gas-guzzling SUV, and take a nice drive in the soon to be cooler countryside.