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by Larry

June, 2011

A Little Ice Age Might Be Just the Ticket About Now, But...

The other day, I was shaving and listening to Public Radio's "Morning Edition" program when my interest was piqued by two stories read out almost back to back, first the local news with Austin's weather forecast, another 104°F day in store for us, though the heat index would make it feel even hotter, the second a national report concerning low sunspot activity possibly going to cause an Earth cooling such as began in 1645 and lasted till 1715, a time known as the "Little Ice Age," when for a few generations rivers that previously had flowed were frozen over in winter, snow sometimes fell in London even during the summer, and average temperatures dropped about 3°C, with attendant crop failures, transportation challenges, energy shortages, and food scarcity. The story went on to indicate scientists speculated that this time the coming cool spell would also last 70 years and could lower global thermometers by half a degree. Nothing perhaps to get terribly excited about, but - in view of the much heralded warming trends - definitely a mercury move in the right direction!

Thames Frost Fair, 1683-1684, by Thomas Wyke (Wikipedia)
Climatologists tell us that so far global warming, thought to be the result of human activity, particularly the raising of levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere, has lifted temperatures by around a degree C on average. They warn that, unless corrective action is taken quite soon, average temperatures will go on rising, increasing by 2100 to about three degrees C or roughly 5.4°F (plus or minus a margin of error) above what were normal levels in the first part of the 20th Century. The temperature shifts will tend to be even greater closer to the poles, but with much regional variation.

Though hardly enough to give people in the northern hemisphere Christmas-like weather in August, a half-degree reprieve lasting more than three generations might be exactly what we need to adjust how we produce our energy and so hopefully forestall later, more severe warming effects, that include potentially killing off the rest of vertebrate sea life, more frequent and intense hurricanes, melting of the polar icecaps, engulfing of low-lying coastal areas as the oceans rise, the extinction of many land species, widespread droughts, horrendous agricultural losses, easier spread of diseases, conflicts over dwindling supplies of land, water, or food resources, etc.

All in all, then, I was eager to see if the brief report I had just heard were true. Will the worsening consequences of global warming really be significantly counteracted by the lowered solar flare activity? In a word, "No." Reduced solar activity is not expected to have any effect at all on global climate until about 2020, in any case. Meanwhile, human activity that contributes to global warming is proceeding apace. The effects of lowered solar activity in this instance are unlikely to reduce predicted increases in temperature by more than 0.1 to 0.2°C, less than the amount the mercury is probably going to go up, on average, over merely the next decade. Unfortunately, we cannot look to the sun for an easy solution to the problems we are daily creating simply by carrying on a carbon-based energy dependent and population-intensive global economy.

The original "Little Ice Age" is now thought to have been brought about more due to temporary Earth volcanic phenomena than solar activity. According to scientists quoted in Wired Science ("Sunspot Drop Won't Cause Global Cooling," by Brandon Keim, 6/15/11), Georg Fuelner and Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, greenhouse warming is now at a level equivalent to a 2 watt Christmas tree light over every square meter of the Earth's surface, and, whether or not there is normal solar activity in the interim, that level is expected to increase to about the same as two such 2 watt Christmas tree lights over each square meter of Earth surface within four decades (continuing then to increase at that rate or higher through the end of the century and beyond). The maximum impact of lowered solar flare activity is anticipated, however, to only be 0.2 watts per square meter and to last for only a decade or so. Further, once the usual solar flare incidence resumes, that factor will just add excess energy back into our already taxed climate system.

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