Solar Science

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Archive for June 2008

The Apocalyptic Temptation: A plea for scientific rationality – part 1

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The Prologue

Although some might construe this as an attack upon people I like and respect, that isn’t the intention and I don’t believe that the people I quote here would take it as a personal attack because they’re grown-up, mature people. If its a criticism of them, then its also a criticism of myself.

The Apocalyptic Temptation

It is historically axiomatic that humankind is obsessed with the future, the “undiscovered country”. It is also axiomatic that humankind has tended to fear the future, based mainly on a lack of imagination coupled with a willingness to extrapolate current trends well into the future, often beyond all reason.

If the Global Warming Panic has taught us anything, its taught us the strong propensity of highly educated people to construct trends from noisy data and make startling pronouncements, projections, predictions of future catastrophe if current trends continue. This latest Apocalyptic scare has come at a time when, at least in the Western culture, formerly dominant religious beliefs have fallen by the wayside – those beliefs of course having an Apocalyptic Day of Judgment to represent the final gambit to believe in the final triumph of a particular religious orthodoxy over its enemies, ie non-believers.

It also appears to be a constant of human history that those who claim to be able to predict the future are given unusual privilege within the society, rather than scorn or skepticism. Apparently successful short term predictions give the would-be prophet a measure of gravitas and even elevated position within the society. It appears that no society is immune to this process – from the earliest recorded stories about the Pharoahs of Egypt through to the current President of the United States, the person or group who makes successful short-term predictions gains political, social and economic power.

Its not difficult to see why.

The obsession of any State, of any civilization is focussed upon a few key levers to retain power. Amongst them, possibly the most important lever of power is the price and availability of food to the population – lose control of that key lever and without exception that State or civilization will fall soon after, regardless of the might of the military to suppress dissent, because even soldiers have got to eat.

A lesson from ancient history

A classic example of the power of the prophet and the realities of political power occurs in the book of Genesis. The Pharoah came from a long dynasty of people who were credited by some divine power with mastery over the course of the climate including the regular flooding by the Nile which would restore soil fertility. The Pharoahs were believed to cause the rising and setting of the Sun, and were believed to be avatars of the Gods of Ancient Egypt.

So when a particular Pharoah has a recurrent dream about seven fat cows, followed by seven thin cows who ate the fat cows but remained thin, followed by seven big ears of wheat and seven withered stalks of wheat that appeared to eat the fat stalks but remained withered, the Pharoah knew that this vision was important and checked through with all of his regular entourage of soothsayers, astrologers and scryers, none appeared to give a reasonable answer until Joseph, a jewish slave offered to interpret and what he said (in effect) was this:

The seven fat cows and seven fat ears of wheat represent seven years of agricultural properity, but then the thin cows and the withered stalks represent seven years of famine.

So what did Pharoah do? He instituted an immediate agricultural intervention program to build and maintain grain stores and set a price floor in food commodities to encourage the farmers to grow as much as possible knowing that there was a minimum price upon it.

Why did Pharoah do that? Basic economics – had he not started the intervention program then during the seven years of abundance the price of food would have fallen through the floor and the farmers would have planted and herded less and less otherwise they would have lost a lot of money. Then, when the famine hit, the price of food would rocket, the people would go hungry, then so would the army and then Pharoah’s dynasty would end in a bloodbath.

What happened to the prophet? He became part of the Pharonic Entourage, given power and prestige (and one of the Pharoah’s daughters as well). Joseph, according to Genesis, became the key person in charge of the Egypt Food Intervention Programme, a Bronze Age version of the EU Common Agricultural Policy. He died a wealthy man.

Price stability in food is all important in the stability of nations, always has been and always will. Civilization collapse is intimately related to the price and availability of food, and by extension to the vagaries of climate change.

So from the very earliest times, the importance of predicting future climate (or appearing to) is a key lever to the continuation of power by any State. When control over the price and availability is lost, then down comes the State, like the Soviet Union in 1989 or Suharto’s Indonesia in the 1990s after the price of food skyrocketed when it became scarce. Its happening now in Zimbabwe and if it wasn’t for China, it would be happening in Burma as well.

Little wonder therefore that people who appear to predict the future course of food production (or at least construct scenario that point to the same thing) are given extraordinary credence by people in power. That’s how a mountebank named Trofim Lysenko managed to become President of the Russian Academy under Stalin and have Russian orthodox geneticists sent to gulags when they opposed his pseudoscience – because he promised Stalin a quick agricultural fix that would feed the masses.

If the lure of being a saviour to a civilization didn’t mesh so well with the needs of leaders of all kinds to maintain political power, then its doubtful that anyone would do it. The risks are extremely high that circumstances will turn against the prophet, and the leader anxious to preserve his or her own skin, will very quickly dismiss a prophet who failed in his forecasts.

I’m sure that everyone who reads this, can think of many occasions in history where leaders have been beguiled, for a time, by a charlatan who foretells certain disaster unless a certain program, usually having political or economic ramifications,  and must be enacted with that very person in charge.

The modern cause of science using the scientific method, which we think of as foundational to our Western societies is a relatively recent iteration of a process which has been going on for centuries. It is not perfect, nor has science ever eliminated the human factors that distort science and bring discredit to its practitioners.

In the next part, I want to discuss the modern fascination with prophecy and the failures to enact even basic safeguards against charlatanism and the latent human desire for apocalyptic sensationalism.

And it involves all of us.

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Written by John A

June 15, 2008 at 2:33 pm

Hathaway: “Sun’s contribution is small compared to volcanoes, El Nino and greenhouse gases”

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I’ve no objection at all and much praise when scientists actually make falsifiable predictions based on their understanding of the science. Thus when David Hathaway predicts that Solar Cycle 24 will be as large or larger than Solar Cycle 23, I applaud that boldness.

In this article on, several aspects to the current solar minimum are discussed:

The sun’s surface has been fairly blank for the last couple of years, and that has some worried that it may be entering another Maunder minimum, the sun’s 50-year abstinence from sunspots, which some scientists have linked to the Little Ice Age of the 17th century.

Could a new sunspot drought plunge us into another decades-long cold spell?

It’s not very likely, says David Hathaway a solar physicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Fair enough. Perhaps if I used IPCC-speak, we’d give that a 10-20% probability?

Hathaway continues to make bold observations and predictions:

The sun’s energy drives all climate and weather on Earth. And Hathaway does agree there are good indications that fluctuations in solar output related to sunspot cycles influence the Earth’s climate. And the Maunder minimum isn’t the only evidence — scientists have linked two smaller sunspot minimums (periods of time with very few sunspots) in the early 19th century to cold spells, as well as periods before the Maunder minimum deduced from tree ring records, he said.

But the sun isn’t the only thing that influences our climate: volcanic eruptions, large-scale phenomena such as El Nino, and, more recently, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere also affect the global climate.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the sun probably accounted for about 10 to 30 percent of climate variability, Hathaway told, but now that greenhouse gases have started to build up, “the sun’s contribution is getting smaller and smaller,” he added.

So the pre-industrial climate change on Earth was only 10-30% driven by solar variability. I wonder what the other 70-90% were.

Hathaway hints that volcanic eruptions have an effect, but as far as I am aware such eruptions only cool for perhaps 2 or 3 years, hardly causing a blip in a climate trend [unless we’re talking about supervolcanic events which can cause climate cooling for decades, but we haven’t had one of those for 70,000 years with the Toba explosion]. Is the rest caused by the ENSO cycle?

What of the current solar minimum and the sputtering start to Solar Cycle 24?

Signs of the current, new solar cycle (which actually overlaps with the last cycle) showed up in November 2006, and its first sunspots were seen in January of this year, and again in April, Hathaway said. So already that rules out another Maunder minimum, Hathaway says, since this solar cycle has already begun producing spots, even if there haven’t been many of them yet.

This cycle is just simply “off to a slow start,” Hathaway said.

The last three solar cycles were also what Hathaway calls “big cycles,” meaning they had more than the average number of sunspots (the average is around 110 to 120 sunspots on any given day during the cycle’s maximum). It’s not unusual for such a spate of prolific cycles to be followed my more muted solar cycles (such as the cycle that preceded the last three biggies).

Hathaway says that solar physicists are divided on their predictions of this new solar cycle — some say it will be small, others say it will be another doozy. Predictions have ranged anywhere from 75 to 150 maximum spots during its peak. “There really are two camps,” Hathaway said. Whatever the number ends up being, though, “it’s not zero,” he added.

That depends on whether the Maunder Minimum was really devoid of sunspots or had sporadic “Tiny Tim” spot groups which were not seen because of the technology used at the time.

It’s doubtful that it was really zero during that time.

Here’s the clincher:

Why the sun is so fickle in its sunspot production is still something of a quandary. “We still don’t fully understand how the sun does this,” Hathaway noted.

Now that statement I regard as the most important of the article. It might not be a popular statement with people on either side of the argument, but as far as solar cycle prediction is concerned, nobody knows for sure what will happen with the Solar Cycle next week, never mind next year or five or ten years hence.

The science of the variation of the Sun’s solar cycle is in its vary early stages. No-one, not even David Hathaway, knows what will happen next. That’s why he’s checking the Sun every day.

As Kenneth Tapping has already reported (and I blogged his observation) long solar cycles are not that unusual historically and are not in themselves indicative of how powerful are the succeeding cycles. Tapping noted that the long and weak Solar Cycle 20, (which occurred during a global cool period on Earth), was succeeded by Solar Cycles 21, 22 and 23 all of which were relatively powerful (and coincided by chance with a global warming on Earth).

Little Ice Age

But on the point of whether even a Maunder Minimum style collapse would cool the Earth, Hathaway admirably sticks with the IPCC-derived consensus:

One idea springs from the fact that the sun emits much more ultraviolet radiation when it is covered in sunspots, which can affect the chemistry of Earth’s atmosphere. The other is that when the sun is active, it produces tangled magnetic fields that keep out galactic cosmic rays. Some scientists have proposed that a lack of sunspots means these cosmic rays are bombarding Earth and creating clouds, which can help cool the planet’s surface.

But these ideas aren’t yet proven, and anyway, the sun’s contribution is small compared to volcanoes, El Nino and greenhouse gases, Hathaway notes.

Even if there were another Maunder minimum, he says, we would still suffer the effects of greenhouse gases and the Earth’s climate would remain warm. “It doesn’t overpower them at all,” Hathaway said.

So according to Hathaway, greenhouse gases are warming the Earth to such an extent that solar variation becomes unimportant. Never mind whether I agree with him (and who am I to disagree with an expert?), I applaud David Hathaway for making such scientifically falsifiable statements.

I hope he’s right about the warming. So far, during the current warming, we’ve had the major deserts contract, the tropics expand and possibly a general reduction in hurricane frequency globally during the 20th Century.

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Written by John A

June 12, 2008 at 1:38 am

Where is global warming when you really need it?

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Philip K. Chapman

This one could be filed under “Solar Cycle 24 pessimism”

Lawrence Solomon in the Financial Post (Canada) writes:

You probably haven’t heard much of Solar Cycle 24, the current cycle that our sun has entered, and I hope you don’t. If Solar Cycle 24 becomes a household term, your lifestyle could be taking a dramatic turn for the worse. That of your children and their children could fare worse still, say some scientists, because Solar Cycle 24 could mark a time of profound long-term change in the climate. As put by geophysicist Philip Chapman, a former NASA astronaut-scientist [pictured above] 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.”

The sun, of late, is remarkably free of eruptions: It has lost its spots. By this point in the solar cycle, sunspots would ordinarily have been present in goodly numbers. Today’s spotlessness — what alarms Dr. Chapman and others — may be an anomaly of some kind, and the sun may soon revert to form. But if it doesn’t – and with each passing day, the speculation in the scientific community grows that it will not – we could be entering a new epoch that few would welcome.

It’s interesting that not everybody has swallowed the idea that cooling down the Earth is Good Idea.

The Little Ice Age was no fun at all

The consequences of the Little Ice Age, because they occurred in relatively recent times, have come down to us through literature and the arts as well as from historians and scientists, government and business records. When Shakespeare wrote of “lawn as white as driven snow,” he had first-hand experience – Europe was bitterly cold in his day, a sharp contrast to the very warm weather that preceded his birth. During the Little Ice Age, the River Thames froze over, the Dutch developed the ice skate and the great artists of the day learned to love a new genre: the winter landscape.
In what had been a warm Europe , adaptations were not all happy: Growing seasons in England and Continental Europe generally became short and unreliable, which led to shortages and famine. These hardships were nothing compared to the more northerly countries: Glaciers advanced rapidly in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia and North America, making 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, 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.

Actually the Viking colonies were not abandoned. The colonists were marooned on Greenland because a) the Viking boats could no longer get to them because of advancing glaciers and sea ice and b) they had no wood to spare to make boats.

So they dwindled and eventually starved to death.

By complete coincidence this coincided with a solar minimum lasting around 70 years.
Solar activity events recorded in radiocarbon.

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Written by John A

June 1, 2008 at 6:13 am