• Are We Heading Towards a Mini Ice Age?

Environmental Laboratory

Are We Heading Towards a Mini Ice Age?

Aug 28 2015

Earlier this year, a scientist from the University of Northumbria caused a media frenzy of sorts by announcing that reduced solar activity in the near future could lead to a mini Ice Age. After analysing solar fluid movement cycles, Valentina Zharkova told the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, that the Earth could face a significant period of icy temperatures in as little as 15 years.

With the growing threat of climate change, monitoring the weather is now more relevant than ever. With this in mind, Zharkova and her team developed a novel method of investigating solar cycles to make the controversial predictions, which have yet to be verified by other studies.

Two Waves Are Better than One?

Zharkova used a mathematical programme to arrive at her findings which has produced 97% accuracy over the last 30 years in mapping the movement of sunspots. Sunspots are cooler regions of the Sun’s surface which move around periodically and appear darker when photographed. We say cooler, but really these sunspots still maintain incredible temperatures of around 4,200°C.

They are caused by the shifting magnetic fields of the solar body, which redirect heat away from certain regions and cause them to be slightly cooler. Up until Zharkova’s work, it had been previously thought there was only one source for producing magnetic waves on the Sun, but she and her team detected that the waves were actually produced in pairs.

Using this new knowledge, Zharkova was able to map out the movement of the sunspots in upcoming years, divided into “cycles” of 11-year segments.

History Repeats Itself

Interestingly, the research revealed that a brace of waves will be moving away from the centre of the Sun towards its northern and southern tips, thus reducing the power of the body as a whole. “In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other – peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun,” explained Zharkova. “Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a 'Maunder minimum'.” 

Maunder minimum is the name given to a 70-year period in the 17th and early 18th century when the Earth experienced a mini Ice Age due to the dearth of sunspots on the Sun. Though temperatures did not fall low enough to be life-threatening, they did cause the Thames River to freeze over for seven weeks of the year.

Something comparable to that may be about to happen again, although Zharkova predicts it won’t last quite as long this time, only dropping temperatures for about 30 years from 2030 onwards. “It will be cold, but it will not be this ice age when everything is freezing like in the Hollywood films,” she joked.

However, Zharkova was also quick to point out that just because temperatures may drop temporarily, it does not mean we should forget about climate change. Rather, the momentary cooling of the Sun can be seen as a chance for us to rectify our carbon-emitting ways, a fleeting respite in which we should tackle global warming head-on.

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