Does our Fading Sun mean we face a mini ice age?

Summary: This post discusses the latest climate frenzy, about a coming mini ice age. It’s an excerpt from the latest issue of the Browning World Climate Bulletin, with a review of the facts and an expert analysis by historical climatologist Evelyn Browning Garriss.

Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters
Holland during the Little Ice Age: “Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters” by Hendrick Avercamp c1608.

As so often happens these days, a press release ignited hysteria about our climate — this time by some journalists and amateur climate skeptics reading “Irregular heartbeat of the Sun driven by double dynamo“, about a paper presented by Professor Valentina Zharkova at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno (not yet online). Tyler Pager at The USA Today interviewed Professor Zharkova about this kerfuffle.

No one is more surprised than Valentina Zharkova that her research prompted a worldwide media storm over the next ice age. That’s because her research never even mentioned an ice age. Media outlets got wind of her research and some concluded it suggested the 2030s would be the world’s next ice age because of the drop in solar activity.

“In the press release, we didn’t say anything about climate change,” she told USA TODAY. “My guess is when they heard about Maunder minimum, they used Wikipedia or something to find out more about it.” So her academic theory, to her surprise, began trending on social media and went viral.

To understand the state of science about the influence of the sun on Earth’s climate we turn to…

The Fading Sun? A Mini Ice Age?

 Excerpt from the August 2015 issue of the Browning World Climate Bulletin
Posted with their generous permission.

Summary: A science article has sparked another climate change argument. The author theorizes the sun has two cycles that, combined, will reduce radiation and may cause cooling over the next two decades. Here’s an objective review.

One of the sillier debates is whether human activity OR natural factors shape climate. A warning:  here at the Browning Bulletin we find the two interact, with different levels of influence on different parts of the globe. (For example, human activity affects urban climate more while natural factors have a bigger influence in the middle of an ocean.) One of these debates is now centered on a very well done science research article.

It is well known that the sun goes through a roughly 11-year cycle of sunspot activity. Scientists have discovered that at the peak of the activity, the solar maximum, the sun gives off increased activity. After peaking, the sun typically goes through three years of increased solar flare and gas emissions, then quiets down. Then the cycle builds up again. During the 1600s the cycle was relatively quiet, with little difference between the peak and bottom of the cycle. More recently, the cycle has been much more active, (The Modern Maximum) with the most active cycle in the 1960s. The current cycle, Cycle 24, has been less active than any cycle in the last 50 years.

Scientists theorize that these sunspots and storms are due to the sun’s magnetic field. This field spins and this magnetizes the gassy star. Like an electric magnet, the sun is a spinning dynamo that generates a magnetic field and the magnetic field lines get tangled and cause swirls and storms in the star’s hot gas.

What hasn’t been explained is why these solar cycles are so different. The cycles in the 1600s (The Maunder Minimum) and the early 1800s (The Dalton Minimum) were relatively quiet. The Earth received less radiation and went through a period of time cooler than now.

Solar Cycle 23
The Sun’s lower corona in Solar Cycle 23: minimum (upper left) to maximum & back again (upper right). From NASA.

Recently the cycle has been active and there has been a lot more radiation. Some scientists claim this is the main reason for the past century of global warming while others claim that the different amount of radiation was too minor to have much of an impact on global climate, especially when compared to human greenhouse gases.

Now a new theory attempts to explain this irregularity. On July 9, 2015, Great Britain’s Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) published the presentation of Prof. Valentina Zharkova at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno. She theorized that the different layers of the sun spin at different rates and there are actually two dynamos inside the sun, both generating separate magnetic fields. Sometimes the two work together and combine to form a very strong solar field. Sometimes, however, the two are out of sync and the fields cancel each other out. The RAS quoted Zharkova as announcing that “Combining both waves together and comparing to real data for the current solar cycle, we found that our predictions showed an accuracy of 97%”.

What made the article controversial was the authors finding that their model predicts that the pair of waves become increasingly offset during the 2022 solar cycle. Then, “During Cycle 26, which covers the decade from 2030- 2040, the two waves will become exactly out of synch and this will cause a significant reduction in solar activity.” They compared this to mechanics that led to the cool Maunder Minimum.

You guessed it – the headlines proclaimed the potential doom of a new mini-ice age. Time to invest in mittens!

Yohkoh Soft X-ray Telescope of ISAS
Photo taken by the Yohkoh Soft X-ray Telescope of ISAS. From NASA.

Then came the opposing scientific opinions. The Washington Post, for example, quoted Georg Feulner of the Potsdam Institute on Climate Change Research claiming that the reduced solar radiation would only cool the Earth by 0.1°C, an insignificant amount compared to the 1.3 °C heating that he attributed to man-made greenhouse gases {“No, Earth is not heading toward a ‘mini ice age’“}. In short, the argument now has become another man vs. nature argument.

What is significant is that the theory may explain the erratic behavior of solar cycles. It is now going through peer testing.

Even if the author was right, history has shown that a less active sun does not act quickly. It takes one or more entire 11-year solar cycles to start noticeable cooling and other factors, such as the current warm flow of the Atlantic, can mask the effect for years. If the sun stays quiet for multiple cycles, temperatures do drop, sometimes by one or two degree Celsius (up to 5º F), but it took almost five cycles, more than a hundred years, to cause that much of a drop and other climate cycles may also have joined the sun to cause the cooling.

So, if the theory is right, and it might be, a mini-ice age is not in the near future. It doesn’t look as if polar bears will be moving into your neighborhood any time soon.

This newsletter contains articles, observations and facts to support our contention that humanity is significantly influenced by changing climate. Our calculations show the climate, over the next term, will cause dramatic changes in our social and economic patterns. We feel that readers, attuned to the changes that are occurring, may develop a competitive edge; and, by understanding their current and future environment, can use the momentum of change to their advantage.

 © Evelyn Browning Garriss


Update: update the new revision of sunspot history

Corrected Sunspot History Suggests Climate Change since the Industrial Revolution not due to Solar Trends“, press release from the International Astronomical Union, 7 August 2015.

See the abstract of this important work, and this article about it in Physics World.


Evelyn Browning

About the Browning World Climate Bulletin

For over 35 years, The Browning World Climate Bulletin has been simply the best, most accurate source for long-term climate forecasts. Our subscribers include a diverse group of people and institutions interested in profiting from opportunities presented by changing climate, and those looking to protect their interests that might be affected by changing climate.

They include farmers and ranchers, commodities brokers, large banks and financial institutions, hedge funds, agricultural supply vendors, and people interested in our global climate. See the Bulletin’s website for more information.  Download a sample issue here.

About Evelyn Browning-Garriss

She is a historical climatologist who advises everyone from Texas cattle raisers to Midwestern utilities and Canadian banks about what the coming season will bring. She has spent over 30 years as a business consultant, editor and author explaining the impact of changing climate on economic and social trends. Editor of the Browning World Climate Bulletin, Evelyn has authored or co-authored five books on the changing climate’s impact on water supplies, agriculture, business and terrorism.

For the past 20 years she has taught professional seminars, lectured and/or conducted international seminars in the United States, Canada, England, Singapore, Korea, Central America and the Pacific Islands. In addition to her work as editor of the Browning World Climate Bulletin, she does daily consulting and contract research for businesses and investors.

These sections are reposted from their website.

Clear vision

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Go here for descriptions and links to some of the research about solar influences on Earth’s climate, including the interesting new research. Also see these posts about global cooling…

To help you better understand today’s extreme weather

To learn more about the state of climate change see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.



14 thoughts on “Does our Fading Sun mean we face a mini ice age?”

  1. Important new paper about the sun’s influence on Earth’s climate

    See “Corrected Sunspot History Suggests Climate Change since the Industrial Revolution not due to Solar Trends“, press release from the International Astronomical Union (IAU), 7 August 2015. The paper discusses a substantial revision of the Wolf Sunspot Number (WSN) data, the oldest time series in solar physics still used today. This update of it will drive solar cycle research during the 21st century.

    “The new Sunspot and Group Numbers: a full recalibration” by Frédéric Clette, Leif Svalgaard, José M. Vaquero, and Edward W. Cliver presented at the IAU’s XXIX General Assembly. Abstract:

    After a 4-year research effort, we present here the first end-to-end revision of the Sunspot Number since the creation of this reference index of solar activity by Rudolf Wolf in 1849 and the simultaneous re-calibration of the Group Number, which leads to the elimination of the past incompatibility between those two independent data sets.

    Most corrections relied entirely on original sunspot data, using various approaches. Newly recovered historical sunspot records were added and a critical data selection was applied for the 17th and 18th century, confirming the low solar activity during the Maunder Minimum. Over the 19th century, the k scaling coefficients of individual observers were recomputed using new statistical methodologies, like the “backbone” method resting on a chain of long-duration observers.

    After identifying major changes in the observing methods, two major inhomogeneities were corrected in 1884 in the Group Number (~40% upward drift) and in 1947 in the Sunspot Number (~20% overestimate). Finally, a full re-computation of the group and sunspot numbers was done over the last 50 years, using all original data from the 270 stations archived by the World Data Center – SILSO in Brussels.

    The new Sunspot Number series definitely exclude a progressive rise in average solar activity between the Maunder Minimum and an exceptional Grand Maximum in the late 20th century. Residual differences between the Group and Sunspot Numbers over the past 250 years confirm that they reflect different properties of the solar cycle and that the average number of spots per group varies over time, as it just happened in the recent unexpected evolution of cycles 23 and 24.

    We conclude on the implications for solar cycle and Earth climate studies and on important new conventions adopted for the new series: new unit scales (constant “heritage” factors 0.6 and 12.08 dropped for the Sunspot and Group Numbers respectively), new SN and GN symbols and a new version-tracking scheme implemented at the WDC-SILSO, as a framework open to future improvements of those unique data series.

    This is a follow-up to “Revisiting the Sunspot Number” by the same authors in Space Science Reviews, December 2014.

    1. I have no references to this paper: “Regional climate impacts of a possible future grand solar minimum” by
      Sarah Ineson et al, Nature Communications, 23 June 2015 — Abstract:

      Any reduction in global mean near-surface temperature due to a future decline in solar activity is likely to be a small fraction of projected anthropogenic warming. However, variability in ultraviolet solar irradiance is linked to modulation of the Arctic and North Atlantic Oscillations, suggesting the potential for larger regional surface climate effects. Here, we explore possible impacts through two experiments designed to bracket uncertainty in ultraviolet irradiance in a scenario in which future solar activity decreases to Maunder Minimum-like conditions by 2050.

      Both experiments show regional structure in the wintertime response, resembling the North Atlantic Oscillation, with enhanced relative cooling over northern Eurasia and the eastern United States. For a high-end decline in solar ultraviolet irradiance, the impact on winter northern European surface temperatures over the late twenty-first century could be a significant fraction of the difference in climate change between plausible AR5 scenarios of greenhouse gas concentrations.

  2. The whole ice age story was very frustrating. It’s been debunked many times before. I realise that there are some ideas related to cosmic rays and magnetic fields, but there is little – if any – evidence to support these ideas. Furthermore, if changes in cosmic rays or solar magnetic field can produce significant changes in our global climate, this would suggest that our climate is very sensitive to small changes, which seems inconsistent with the evidence that it’s been reasonably stable across the Holocene.

    Essentially the main driver of global climate change is changes in energy or – more commonly called – changes in radiative forcings. A Grand Solar Minimum would reduce Solar insolation by 1 – 2 W/m^2 (and the low side of this is the recent results are correct). This, however, is the cross-sectional average flux. If we account for the fact that the Earth is roughly spherical and reflect 30% of the incoming flux, this would produce a reduction in solar forcing of 0.2 – 0.3 W/m^2. We’re increasing anthropogenic forcings at about 0.3W/m^2 per decade and could increase this if we continue to increase our emissions. At best, a Solar Grand Minimum would mask about a decade of anthropogenically-driven warming. It’s almost certainly not going to lead to another mini ice age.

    1. ATTP,

      “The whole ice age story was very frustrating.”

      I agree, on several levels. The exaggeration of the literature is pervasive by activists on both sides, leaving the public largely apathetic or befuddled.

      The role of the sun has received much attention by some in the climate science field, although less so by specialists. For example see “The Sun’s role in long-term climate change” by James Hansen, Space Science Review, November 2000: “Evidence suggests that changes of solar irradiance in recent centuries have provided a significant climate forcing and that the sun has been one of the principal causes of long-term climate change.”

      As for the prospect of global cooling, there was both some mention of it in the 1970s literature as a possibility — amplified as usual by DoD (e.g., in 2 famous CIA reports). It played a key role in the creation of NOAA’s Climate Analysis Center in 1979.

      Even now it appears occasionally in the litertaure, for example “Does a Spin-Orbit Coupling Between the Sun and the Jovian Planets Govern the Solar Cycle?”, I. R. G. Wilson et al, Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia, 26 June 2008 — reported as “Cooling coming“ by Andrew Bolt at the Herald Sun (29 June 2008).

      Fringe science theories have thrived in the popular mind with far weaker foundations. So the new solar cycle dating might diminish the enthusiasm of cooling fans, but I suspect they’ll be with us for the foreseeable future.

      For more about the “global cooling” stories see the links in the For More Info Section.

    2. It’s worse than that. From the Wikipedia page on insolence:

      “Accuracy uncertainties of <0.01% are required to detect long term solar irradiance variations, because expected changes are in the range 0.05 to 0.15 W m−2 per century.[26]”

      1. Peter,

        I don’t understand your point. There is a large peer-reviewed literature about solar influences on Earth’s climates (e.g, the one I cited by James Hansen, perhaps the most famous living climate scientist). Do you believe this Wikipedia item negates their work?

        It’s very much a minority opinion that solar influences are strong, let alone decisive (mostly in non-core climate science journals). But it is there, and has been for decades.

    3. The [26] in Peter’s quoted remark is to Kopp & Lean, the new work suggesting that changes in Solar insolation may be smaller than we’ve thought. I think he’s simply pointing out that the impact of a return to Maunder Minimum-like conditions would be small.

      1. ATTP,

        Perhaps so. That seems to be the consensus among scientists in the field, one that is growing stronger over time (if I correctly understand it).

        Your phrasing is imo the most operationally useful one for the pubic: “Kopp & Lean … suggests that…”. The usual layperson comment is to state something from a paper as if it was delivered on a stone tablet from God. That would be helpful, but seldom happens.

        Wikipedia cites by themselves are chaff imo, unless for uncontroversial facts (population of Buffalo).

      1. Peter,

        I’ve posted scores of papers on this. They discuss various mechanisms in some detail. It’s a frontier area of climate science, with more questions than answers. The new solar cycle dating scheme might render all this irrelevant if its found there is no longer a significant correlation between solar cycles and Earth’s weather.

    4. As I understand it, UV heats the stratosphere. Changes in UV can therefore influence stratospheric heating and, consequently, influence global circulation patterns. That’s why it’s thought that a return to some kind of Grand Solar Minimum could have quite large regional effects (Northern Europe and parts of North America, I think), but it’s hard to see it having large global effects given that the overall change in radiative forcing (energy) is small.

      1. I prefer arguments that large changes in parameters (no matter how small initially) can produce large systemic effects over arguments that infinitesimal changes to parameters can do very much system wide. From physics we know for example that turbulent transition in pipes depends strongly on the wall roughness.
        For planetary warming the argument goes something like:
        UV irradiance increases significantly.
        Upper atmosphere fluid motion changes.
        Through continuity some radial convection occurs.
        Through coriolus effect plus convective nonlinearity entire dynamic system changes.
        Water distribution changes.
        Reflectance changes.
        Temperature changes.
        To get a butterfly effect you still have to squash the butterfly. No novels about time lines dramatically changing by plucking one hair from an elephant hide.

  3. I am as frustrated as anyone over the constant manipulation by the media of any scientific article that can be related to climate change. I am of the opinion that natural causes of climate change are often overlooked because they are poorly understood. The failure of climate models to accurately predict current and past climate is due to the very chaotic nature of climate itself. Overestimation of CO2 forcing means the models will all run hot on long enough timescales.The urban heat island effect overwhelms the current cooling observed from many rural stations. Location of weather stations is also a contributing factor. The recent record high temperatures from Heathrow come to mind.

    It is obvious to me that we have to be altering the climate to some extent due to pollution, deforestation, and the amount of BTU’s we add to the atmosphere everyday, from engines and asphalt. That being said, financing CO2-only science is shortsighted and more needs to be done researching the role of the sun and oceans and how they affect long term weather and climate patterns.

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