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Another climate wild card: solar cycle 24, perhaps causing food riots during the next decade

1 February 2011

Summary:  Yesterday we asked if food prices will continue to rise, destabilizing the third world?  Today we ask the same question, with the Sun as the suspect.  This takes us to the frontier of science, beyond the cartoon certainties fed to us by the news media.  This is un-news, hidden from the public as these uncertainties challenge the story of human-emitted CO2 as the driver of Earth’s climate.  If the sun continues to slow, and if that cools our world, then the resulting cool phase will send food prices on a one-way trip to the moon, which will rock the world.  But despite the confident assertions on many sceptic website, this remains just speculation.  One of the many shockwaves (low probability, high inpact) scenarios for which we should prepare — but not panic.  Click here for an update; links to additional information appear at the end.

(1)  The Solar Cycle’s influence on Earth’s weather

There is a strong correlation between solar cycles and Earth’s climate.  Slow cycles (low levels of solar activity during the 11 cycle) overlap cool periods of Earth’s climate.  The Little Ice Age overlapped the Maunder Minimum (1645-1715).  There was also cooling during the Spörer Minimum (1460-1550) and and Dalton Minimum (1790-1830).  There is evidence in the geological record of a longer-term relationship (see the references in section six of this FM reference page.

But there is no proven physical basis for that relationship.  Both solar irradiance and the influx of galactic cosmic rays vary little, hence unlikely to have a substantial influence on Earth’s climate.  But the historical correlation remains, even if the cause remains a mystery.   It’s of more than theoretical interest, since the Sun appears to be slowing again.  Will the Earth cool in response.

(2)  Solar Cycle 24

Here is the monthly National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) graph of sunspot activity (the page also shows F10.7cm radio flux, a more direct measure of solar activity). Note the drop in December.  The blue line is the 13 month moving average, centered on the 7th month (i.e., average of 6 months behind and 6 ahead).  It’s tracing a curve far below the forecast of NOAA’s Solar Cycle 24 Prediction Committee as of May 2009, which calls for a maximum of 90 in May 2013.  The Panel’s first forecast (April 2007) called for a peak of 90-140 sometime between October 2011 and August 2012  (the Panel’s experts were divided).

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NOAA does not update their forecasts.  But NASA does.  Good scientists, they’ve drawn it with a large margin for error.   Which is good, since for cycle 24 each is lower than the previous one.  The latest NASA forecast, as of 3 January 2011, calls for a maximum of 59 in June/July 2013 (in the smoothed curve).  The previous NASA forecast, 5 October 2010 called for a peak of 64 in July 2013.  Note the background, a legacy of their original forecast that cycle 24 would be powerful, perhaps dangerous so to satellites.

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If this forecast is correct, cycle 24 would be would be the slowest since cycles 5 and 6 (the Dalton minimum) in 1800-1820.  This was the London of Charles Dickens’s childhood — a London draped with snow, when people skated on the Thames River.

You can see the full sunspot record here.

(3)  What happens next?

Looking ahead things might get even more interesting.  Livingston and Penn of the National Solar Observatory wrote a paper in 2006 forecasting that solar magnetic activity would decline so that by 2015 there would be no visible sunspots.  It was purely a math forecast, without any physical basis.  Rejected and unpublished, but widely circulated. Since then the sunspot numbers have tracked their forecast, leading to publication of their work.   If true, the significance of this is unclear at this time.  For more information see these:

  1. Sunspots may vanish by 2015“, William Livingston and Matthew Penn, 2006 — Unpublished, 10 pages.
  2. Are Sunspots Different During This Solar Minimum?“, William Livingston and Matthew Penn, EOS (of the American Geophysical Union), 28 July 2009
  3. Long-term Evolution of Sunspot Magnetic Fields“, Matthew Penn, William Livingston, submitted to International Astronomical Union Symposium #273, 3 September 2010
  4. Say goodbye to sunspots“, Science/AAAS website, 14 September 2010

Some posts about the solar cycle

To see links to the science literature about this subject go to section six (About the relationship of earth’s climate and extra-terrestrial factors) on the FM reference page Science & climate – studies & reports.

Posts about the solar cycle, and the sun’s influence on Earth’s weather:

  1. This week’s report on the news in climate science, 7 December 2008
  2. Weekend reading recommendations about climate change, 13 December 2008
  3. An important new article about climate change, 29 December 2008
  4. My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
  5. About the recent conference ”Solar Activity during the onset of Solar Cycle 24″, 3 January 2009
  6. Important new climate science articles, 11 January 2009
  7. NASA: Sun undergoing a “deep solar minimum”, 13 April 2009
  8. The Unusually Quiet Sun finally gets some attention, 23 April 2009
  9. A brief look at the Sun’s influence on Earth’s climate, 4 May 2009
  10. An important puzzle from the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, 10 May 2009
  11. Big news from NASA about the causes of climate change!, 5 June 2009
  12. Peer reviewed science: breakthoughs about the sun’s impact on Earth’s climate, 4 September 2009
  13. Update about the weather – on the Sun. Perhaps coming soon to Earth., 9 February 2011

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