A new study presented today at a National Astronomy meeting in Llandudo, Wales, sent shock waves through social media earlier. The study, carried out by Professor Valentina Zharkova, suggests that Sol’s activity is going to fall below 60% in 2030, triggering a “mini-Ice Age.”
Naturally, the right-wingers and global warming deniers latched onto this study, with snide remarks like, “What about global warming?” Allow me to answer that question: It’s still here, it’s still happening, and there’s nothing about this study that disproves global warming is occurring.
Solar Mins And Maxes
Sol does not constantly put out the same amount of power year round; it goes through a cycle of minimums and maximums, steadily increasing in brightness and energy the older it’s gotten. In fact, early on, Sol would have been much cooler than it is today, leading to the faint young sun paradox.
The study, conducted by Zharkova and her colleagues, used a modeling technique called “principal component analysis” of the magnetic field and examined three solar cycles’ worth of magnetic activity. The period in question covered 1976 to 2008, and they also used sunspot numbers, which are another strong indicator of solar activity.
Since the predictions matched the numbers, they were able to look ahead the next few solar cycles. According to Zharkova:
“We found magnetic wave components appearing in pairs, originating in two different layers in the Sun’s interior. They both have a frequency of approximately 11 years, although this frequency is slightly different, and they are offset in time. Over the cycle, the waves fluctuate between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun. Combining both waves together and comparing to real data for the current solar cycle, we found that our predictions showed an accuracy of 97%.
“In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other — peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun. Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a ‘Maunder minimum’. Effectively, when the waves are approximately in phase, they can show strong interaction, or resonance, and we have strong solar activity. When they are out of phase, we have solar minimums. When there is full phase separation, we have the conditions last seen during the Maunder minimum, 370 years ago.
So what happened 370 years ago? From AD 1550 to 1850, according to NASA data, was what’s called the “Little Ice Age.” It’s not a true glacial period in the sense that there were vast expanses of ice sheets in the southern and northern hemispheres, plummeting values of CO2, and talking mammoths traveling with smilodons and sloths; it nevertheless saw noticeable reduction in global CO2, like cold periods are noted for.
The term, “little ice age,” has been replaced in scientific literature by “neoglaciation.” There’s your random science fact for the day.
So, on one hand, there’s a study that suggests the Earth is heading for a new period of neoglaciation. But on the other hand, there’s a mountain of evidence that proves global warming is happening. How’s that mesh?
Humans tend to think in binaries; right-wingers more so than left, but it’s a human trait. This is why Bubba and Cletus can yuk it up on Facebook about this study, joking that global warming can’t happen if the world is quite possibly staring down the barrel of a new mini-ice age.
Saturn has a moon called Titan. Titan is one of the largest moons in the solar system, and it’s also one of the most Earth-like places in the solar system in that there’s an atmosphere and a hydrological cycle. Titan is also one of the coldest places in the solar system, with an average surface temperature so cold that ice forms the bedrock, and liquid water is analogous to liquid magma.
Titan is probably the last place you’d expect to find global warming and climate change, but it’s there. Titan’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, with large methane-ethane clouds, and methane is a potent greenhouse gas. It’s so potent that more than ten times the distance from Sol to the Earth is, it manages to keep Titan “warm” — a classic demonstration of the greenhouse effect.
This is despite a surface temperature cold enough to freeze water to rock and make methane liquid.
As if that weren’t confusing enough, Titan also has something called an anti-greenhouse effect in addition to a greenhouse effect.
So while Bubba might have a problem envisioning a world in a neoglaciation period that’s still experiencing global warming, nature doesn’t suffer from the same self-imposed mental handicap.
Climate Is Complicated
More pertinently than that detour, however, is this: There’s nothing in the study that contradicts anthropogenic global warming. The study talks about Sol and the impact Sol’s activity has on our climate, but it is totally absent the impact that humans have on the climate.
What impact will a little ice age have on global warming /climate change? There were already predictions that enough fresh water in the ocean could shut down the thermohaline cycle triggering an ice age, so whatever the impact, it probably won’t be a good one.
Ultimately, climate is complicated and one should always defer to the people who spend their lives studying it, like the folks at the IPCC or NASA . They understand it better than someone like me, who’s simply a blogger with training not in climatology, not in geology, not in astrophysics, but in rhetoric — and who knows a red herring when I see one.
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