Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Archive for February 5th, 2010

Global cooling?

Posted by butalidnl on 5 February 2010

This winter has been extraordinarily harsh – most of the northern hemisphere has experienced below-average temperatures since as far back as Christmas 2009. And after more than three weeks of this, it seems that it is here to stay for some time still. Weather forecasters blame a rare (one- in-60- years-event) for this; there is supposed to be a high pressure area around the north pole itself, which is sending cool air to all areas south of it. And since Europe, North America and Asia are already covered with snow, the air just breezes through unchanged – causing southern areas to receive very cold weather.

People will say that it is rather early to make conclusions about the global climate at this point; after all, aren’t there record high temperatures in Australia? But, I’ll make the point anyway: perhaps this is the onset of a “global cooling” trend, one that neutralizes or even overcomes “global warming”.

Why? The possible answer may lie in the sun itself, which we know to be the source of most of the heat in our planet today. If somehow, the heat coming from the sun is lesser than it used to be; then, this will result in cooler weather. Well, then, the heat coming from the sun IS less than normal; but the thing is, scientists say that this is only 0.1% less than normal. This is because of the solar sunspot cycle, which usually lasts 11 years – the difference between the solar radiation during the minimum and the maximum should be only 0.1%.

Cycle No. 23 ended in mid-2008, meaning that sunspots go down to zero (or almost zero) at this time, and then should have started to increase towards a new maximum. But up to now, almost two years later, the sunspots have not really appeared in numbers again, so far sunspot activity has been really anemic. Thus, Cycle No. 24 has NOT started, and we are in an extended minimum sunspot period.

So, what about it?  Well, the thing is that the last time the sun had an extended period without sunspots was  during the Maunder minimum (1645-1715),  when the world had a “Little Ice Age” with extremely cold winters (the Thames and even the Rhine froze during winter). Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this happened, so we are still in the dark about this. However, this means that the drop in solar energy is more than the usual difference of 0.1% between the sunspot minimum and sunspot maximum.  And this is the point where we may be at. What if the sun continues not to show its spots? then, we may be seeing a start of another Little Ice Age.
All this talk about an extended sunspot minimum is still quite speculative. Who knows, maybe the sun is about to come out of its slumber and start showing its spots? But what if the sun continues with its minimum sunspot activity? Then we will be in for a shorter or longer period of cold weather.

What about global warming?
I still believe that human activity is to blame for an increased greenhouse effect, and that a growing portion of the heat from the sun is kept inside the atmosphere as the CO2 concentration grows. However, if the sun is sending out less warmth, there will be less heat to dissipate or retain.
Thus, even though the world’s climate may get cooling influences from the reduction of solar radiation for a time; the warming trend is set to continue once the sun resumes with its usual amount of radiation when the sunspot cycle resumes. Which is to say that what we may be having is a temporary respite from global warming  and not a total cooling trend. And instead of shelving our plans for alternative energy sources and adaptation, we should make the most use of this “extra time” that we have been given to catch up with our anti-global warming measures for the time when the sunspots return.

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