Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Climate change this week: Sunspots disappear

picture courtesy of NASA

For the first time in almost a century, an entire month has passed without a single sunspot being visible on the sun’s surface. The event is significant because sunspots are caused by solar magnetic activity, and solar magnetic activity is increasingly believed by climatologists to be one of the primary factors influencing the earth’s climate. It is not uncommon to see 100 or more sunspots in a single month, but during the first seven months of 2008, the sun averaged only three spots, followed by the total disappearance of spots last month.

The disappearance of sunspots has caught most astronomers by surprise and defied almost all predictions, though one observatory seems to have gotten it right. In 2005, a pair of astronomers from the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Tucson wrote a paper predicting that within 10 years, sunspots would disappear entirely. But their peers laughed at the two astronomers, and Science refused to publish their paper on the grounds that it was too controversial. In the end, “consensus” stifled scientific debate, and the NSO astronomers were ignored.

The scientific community is paying attention now, however. Some climate scientists believe that the sun’s “dynamo” (the process that creates its magnetic field) might be idling. As the sun’s dynamo slows and sunspot activity decreases, the sun’s magnetosphere is reduced, affecting cloud formation and climate modulation on earth. A long absence of sunspots has happened three times in the past 1,000 years: the Dalton, Maunder and Sporer Minimums. The Maunder Minimum coincided with the 400-year Little Ice Age, during which Europe and North America endured bitterly cold winters that devastated agriculture.

If we are indeed entering another solar minimum on the scale of the Maunder Minimum, we can expect severe global cooling to follow, stressing both the agriculture and energy industries. The practice of harvesting corn for use as fuel ethanol will likely become a distant memory, and the United States’ short-sighted energy policies could mean there won’t be enough heating oil, natural gas and electricity to go around in the severest of winters. We hope it won’t come to that, but if it does, at least Al Gore will be where he belongs: out in the cold.

Reprinted from the Patriot Post (http://www.patriotpost.us/)

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