Popular Mechanics on the Solar Minimum
Joe Pappalardo at Popular Mechanics has a fascinating article on the possible (probable?) result of an extended solar minimum such as that which we are experiencing: global cooling:
Every day, scientists hoping to see an increase in solar activity train their instruments at the sun as it crosses the sky. This is no idle academic pursuit: A lull in solar action could potentially drive the planet’s temperature down, or even prompt a mini Ice Age.
Woah! I wonder if Joe has heard about the overwhelming scientific consensus that denies such a result? Maybe I should sic James Hansen on him…
For millennia, thermonuclear forces inside the star have followed a regular rhythm, causing its magnetic field to peak and ebb, on average, every 11 years. Space weathermen are watching for telltale increases in sunspots, which would signal the start of a new cycle, predicted to have started last March and expected to peak in 2012. “When the sun’s active, it’s a little bit brighter,” explains Ken Tapping, a solar researcher and project director for Canada’s National Research Council.
So far, Tapping reports no change in the magnetic field strength, as measured by radio telescopes. On the more positive side, last month NASA reported a small, earth-sized sunspot with a magnetic field pointing in the opposite direction from those in the previous cycle; qualities that designate the spot as a signal of a new upturn in activity. At the solar maximum, scientists expect to see between 75 and 150 such sunspots per day.
Tapping oversees the operation of a 60-year-old radio telescope that he calls a “stethoscope for the sun.” Recent magnetic field readings are as low as he’s ever seen, he says, and he’s worked with the instrument for more than 25 years. If the sun remains this quiet for another a year or two, it may indicate the star has entered a downturn that, if history is any precedent, could trigger a planetary cold spell that could bring massive snowfall and severe weather to the Northern Hemisphere.
The last such solar funk corresponded with a period of bitter cold that began around 1650 and lasted, with intermittent spikes of warming, until 1715. While there were competing causes for the climatic shift—including the Black Death’s depopulation of tree-cutting Europeans and, more substantially, increased volcanic activity spewing ash into the atmosphere—the sun’s lethargy likely had something to do with it.
Of course, no mention of greenhouse gases.
Just how much influence the sun has on global temperatures has been the subject of sometimes acrimonious debate. While an upswing in solar activity may cause a warming trend, it was discounted in the mid-1990s as the sole driver of current climate change. And for anyone hoping that a solar downswing might bail us out of our current dilemma: Solar influence on climate is slight compared to the impact of man-made greenhouse gases, a National Academy of Sciences report concluded in 1995.
Ah, there it is! So what we have is a contest between global warming due to greenhouse gases, and global cooling due to solar dimming.
Its a dilemma as to what to wish for. Global cooling such as the Little Ice Age would have been a technological challenge to modern 21st Century agriculture, technology and energy resources. What’s there to worry about with global warming? Deserts like the Sahara shrinking is a bad thing to be avoided…like the Plague?