— The Erimtan Angle —

The Toronto-based freelance science writer Colin Schultz writes that the “numbers have been crunched and the results are in: 2013 did not buck the trend of climate change. Last year sailed to the number four slot of the world’s hottest years on record, the 37th year of above-average temperatures in a row. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ‘The year 2013 ties with 2003 as the fourth warmest year globally since records began in 1880. The annual global combined land and ocean surface temperature was 0.62°C (1.12°F) above the 20th century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F)’. That’s a small increase, sure, but it’s part of a much longer background trend of increasing global temperatures, which scientists have been watching for decades. The warming anomaly of 2013 was actually a bit stronger when narrowed down to temperatures over land: ‘The 2013 global average land surface temperature was 0.99°C (1.78°F) above the 20th century average of 8.5°C (47.3°F)’, says NOAA. The ocean is a huge energy sink, so it’s harder to heat up the air over the water. The 2013 over-land temperature was also the fourth highest on record”.[1]

Schultz then adss that “NASA pegged 2013 as the seventh hottest year. ‘The agencies use different methods for analyzing temperature data, resulting in different rankings, but the numbers behind the rankings are within fractions of a degree of one another’, said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climatologist. ‘This difference is, really, pretty irrelevant in a 133-year record. It’s definitely getting hotter'”.[ii]  This increase in global temperatures appears to be offset by another trend that sees solar activity drop. As explained by the BBC’s science reporter Rebecca Morelle: ” right now the Sun should be awash with activity [, but is instead going through a lull]. It has reached its solar maximum, the point in its 11-year cycle where activity is at a peak. This giant ball of plasma should be peppered with sunspots, exploding with flares and spewing out huge clouds of charged particles into space in the form of coronal mass ejections. But apart from the odd event, like some recent solar flares, it has been very quiet. And this damp squib of a maximum follows a solar minimum – the period when the Sun’s activity troughs – that was longer and lower than scientists expected”.[3]  Dr Lucie Green, from University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, explains that ” It’s completely taken me and many other solar scientists by surprise . . . It could mean a very, very inactive star, it would feel like the Sun is asleep… a very dormant ball of gas at the centre of our Solar System”.[4]  Morelle then explains that “[t]his, though, would certainly not be the first time this has happened. During the latter half of the 17th Century, the Sun went through an extremely quiet phase – a period called the Maunder Minimum. Historical records reveal that sunspots virtually disappeared during this time”.[5]

In 1998, John E. Beckman and Terence J. Mahoney, attached to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, Universidad de La Laguna, pointed out that “The possible absence of sunspots for some 70 years in the 17th century was first pointed out by [F. W. G.] Spörer (1887) using the extensive compilation of data by [R.] Wolf (1856, 1868). Spörer’s work was summarized by [E. W.] Maunder (1890, 1894), who commented, following [A. M.] Clerke (1894), that this dearth of sunspots apparently coincided with an absence of terrestrial aurorae. We now know that aurorae are caused by sub-atomic particles emitted by the Sun during releases of magnetic energy which often accompany sunspots. To supplement Spörer’s use of Wolf’s data, Maunder quotes the editor of Philosophical Transactions describing the observation of a sunspot in 1671 by [director of the Observatoire de Paris, G. D.] Cassini in Paris with the comment that it was the first seen for many years. Much later, Maunder (1922) found a note by [John] Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal, describing a sunspot seen at Greenwich in 1684, in which Flamsteed says that it is the first he had seen since 1674. Flamsteed made several other references to this spot and to his solar observations in general in his correspondence, the definitive edition of which is now nearing completion (Flamsteed 1995). Maunder also took evidence from [W.] Herschel (1801), who had referred to [Jérôme Lefrançois de] Lalande’s (1792) L’Astronomie in which detailed evidence relating to the absence of sunspots in the latter part of the 17th, and early 18th century was cited”.[6]  Beckman and Mahoney then continue that “[J. A.] Eddy’s arguments [in a 1976 Science article] for a lull in solar magnetic activity during the Maunder Minimum, one of the main reasons why his ideas caught the imagination is more contentious. He claimed that the Maunder Minimum coincided in time with an era of colder weather, and that by implication the absence of magnetic activity was accompanied by a net fall in the total radiative output of the Sun. An implicit corollary is that in the intervening period the radiative output has been increasing, with a consequent warming of the Earth. This basic idea has been taken up by a section of the solar physics community, and a good recent summary of the evidence for the proposition that solar variability is an agent, if not the main agent, of the perceived recent climate change associated with global warming, is given in [D. V.] Hoyt & [K. H.] Schatten [‘s The Role of the Sun in Climate Change, published by the OUP in] (1997)”.[7]  But climate change effected by a solar lull is manifested in colder temperatures, quite unlike the current trend of Global Warming. Nevertheless, Dr Green is determined saying that “[t]here is a very strong hint that the Sun is acting in the same way now as it did in the run-up to the Maunder Minimum”.[8]  Sharing Green’s conviction, Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics, from the University of Reading, goes even further, boldly proclaiming that “[i]t’s an unusually rapid decline [in solar activity]. We estimate that within about 40 years or so there is a 10% to 20% – nearer 20% – probability that we’ll be back in Maunder Minimum conditions”.[9]  But as pointed out by BBC’s Morelle, the “era of solar inactivity in the 17th Century coincided with a period of bitterly cold winters in Europe. Londoners enjoyed frost fairs on the Thames after it froze over, snow cover across the continent increased, the Baltic Sea iced over – the conditions were so harsh, some describe it as a mini-Ice Age”.[10]

At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity now seems faced with two different trajectories: a global trend of increasing temperatures offset by a mini-Ice Age. Professor Lockwood explains that this whole conundrum is a “very active research topic at the present time, but we do think there is a mechanism in Europe where we should expect more cold winters when solar activity is low”.[11]  Morelle adds that Professor Lockwood “believes this local effect happens because the amount of ultraviolet light radiating from the Sun dips when solar activity is low. This means that less UV radiation hits the stratosphere – the layer of air that sits high above the Earth. And this in turn feeds into the jet stream – the fast-flowing air current in the upper atmosphere that can drive the weather. The results of this are dominantly felt above Europe, says Prof Lockwood”.  Hence, a local mini-Ice Age freezing in a climate sea of Global Warming. The BBC concludes that “[i]n a recent report by the UN’s climate panel, scientists concluded that they were 95% certain that humans were the ‘dominant cause’ of global warming since the 1950s, and if greenhouse gases continue to rise at their current rate, then the global mean temperature could rise by as much as 4.8C. And while some have argued that ebbs and flows in the Sun’s activity are driving the climate – overriding the effect of greenhouse gas emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concludes that solar variation only makes a small contribution to the Earth’s climate. Prof Lockwood says that while UV light varies with solar activity, other forms of radiation from the Sun that penetrate the troposphere (the lower layer of air that sits above the Earth) do not change that much”.[12]


[1] Colin Schultz, “2013 Continues 37-Year Warm Streak” Smithsonian (22 Jan 2014). http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/yep-global-warming-still-thing-2013-adds-37-year-warm-streak-180949457/.

[2] Colin Schultz, “2013 Continues 37-Year Warm Streak”.

[3] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?” BBC News (22 Jan 2014). http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25743806.

[4] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

[5] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

[6] John E. Beckman and Terence J. Mahoney, “The Maunder Minimum and Climate Change: Have Historical Records Aided Current Research?” Library and Information Services in Astronomy (1998). http://www.solarstorms.org/SunLikeStars.html.

[7] John E. Beckman and Terence J. Mahoney, “The Maunder Minimum and Climate Change”.

[8] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

[9] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

[10] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

[11] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

[12] Rebecca Morelle, ” Is our Sun falling silent?”.

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