The debate over global warming is about to heat up once again. The politicians, pundits and scientists who get paid-off by the carbon-based fuel industry to debunk research demonstrating that climate change is caused by human activity – finally have some exciting news. The upcoming period of increased sunspot activity, which has been the subject of so many scientific articles – solar max – is now expected to be even more disappointing than the downgraded, 2009 forecast. (Back in 2006, NASA was reporting expectations of “the most intense solar maximum in fifty years”.) Beyond that, many scientists are suggesting that once our current sunspot cycle ends, there might not be any sunspot activity for the following 20-30 years. Some commentators believe that the consequences for earth could involve global cooling – or as some have discussed – a “mini ice age”.
This press release from the National Solar Observatory seems to be a stark departure from last week’s National Geographic report concerning an enormous coronal mass ejection (CME) which resulted from a solar flare on June 7. However, it’s important to keep in mind that our current sunspot cycle won’t end until 2018. The National Geographic piece included remarks by Phillip Chamberlin, an astrophysicist involved with NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), one of several spacecraft which recorded the CME event. Here is a passage concerning some of what Chamberlin had to say:
But he warned space-weather experts are concerned about future solar events.
The sun’s 11-year cycle of activity, driven by tangled surface magnetic fields, will hit its maximum in late 2013 or early 2014. Magnetic messiness will peak around that time and prompt nasty solar storms.
“We’ll probably see [extreme] flares every couple of months instead of years,” Chamberlin said.
If one of these powerful flares – and its coronal mass ejection – faces Earth, the particles will pound satellite components with charged particles, short some out, and potentially cripple them.
The recent report from the National Solar Observatory reveals that astrophysicists are now making a 180-degree turn away from prior forecasts about solar activity:
A missing jet stream, fading spots, and slower activity near the poles say that our Sun is heading for a rest period even as it is acting up for the first time in years, according to scientists at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) and the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL).
As the current sunspot cycle, Cycle 24, begins to ramp up toward maximum, independent studies of the solar interior, visible surface, and the corona indicate that the next 11-year solar sunspot cycle, Cycle 25, will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.
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“This is highly unusual and unexpected,” Dr. Frank Hill, associate director of the NSO’s Solar Synoptic Network, said of the results. “But the fact that three completely different views of the Sun point in the same direction is a powerful indicator that the sunspot cycle may be going into hibernation.”
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“If we are right,” Hill concluded, “this could be the last solar maximum we’ll see for a few decades. That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth’s climate.”
In response to news inquiries and stories, Dr. Frank Hill issued a follow-up statement:
“We are NOT predicting a mini-ice age. We are predicting the behavior of the solar cycle. In my opinion, it is a huge leap from that to an abrupt global cooling, since the connections between solar activity and climate are still very poorly understood. My understanding is that current calculations suggest only a 0.3 degree C decrease from a Maunder-like minimum, too small for an ice age. It is unfortunate that the global warming/cooling studies have become so politically polarizing.”
So what can we expect here on earth? Two years ago, NASA was predicting that our current sunspot cycle (Cycle 24) would have the lowest peak number of sunspots since Cycle 16, which peaked in 1928. The peak sunspot activity for our current cycle will occur in 2013. The May 29, 2009 report from NASA included this admonition from Doug Biesecker of the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center:
“Even a below-average cycle is capable of producing severe space weather,” points out Biesecker. “The great geomagnetic storm of 1859, for instance, occurred during a solar cycle of about the same size we’re predicting for 2013.”
The 1859 storm–known as the “Carrington Event” after astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed the instigating solar flare–electrified transmission cables, set fires in telegraph offices, and produced Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their red and green glow. A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause $1 to 2 trillion in damages to society’s high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery. For comparison, Hurricane Katrina caused “only” $80 to 125 billion in damage.
So I guess we aren’t really getting “off the hook” just because our current sunspot cycle is turning out to be “below average”. From the “climate change” standpoint, the new debate should concern the extent to which permanent damage can be inflicted upon the Earth before the anticipated “global cooling” begins. The May, 2009 NASA article also told us what we can expect during periods of “low solar activity”:
Low solar activity has a profound effect on Earth’s atmosphere, allowing it to cool and contract. Space junk accumulates in Earth orbit because there is less aerodynamic drag. The becalmed solar wind whips up fewer magnetic storms around Earth’s poles. Cosmic rays that are normally pushed back by solar wind instead intrude on the near-Earth environment. There are other side-effects, too, that can be studied only so long as the sun remains quiet.
Regardless of what particular events are directly caused by solar activity (or the lack thereof) one thing is for certain: We will be hearing a great deal about the latest National Solar Observatory report from the outspoken opponents to theories of human-caused climate change.