Since our article yesterday about how reduced solar activity could lead to the next little ice age, IFLScience has spoken to the researcher who started the furor: Valentina Zharkova. She announced the findings from her team's research on solar activity last week at the Royal Astronomical Society. She noted that her team didn't realize how much of an impact their research would have on the media, and that it was journalists (including ourselves) who picked up on the possible impact on the climate. However, Zharkova says that this is not a reason to dismiss this research or the predictions about the environment.
“We didn't mention anything about the weather change, but I would have to agree that possibly you can expect it,” she informed IFLScience.
The future predicted activity of the Sun has been likened to the Maunder Minimum. This was a period when the Sun entered an especially inactive period, producing fewer sunspots than usual. This minimum happened at the same time that conditions in Northern America and Europe went unusually icy and cold, a period of time known as the “little ice age.”
The previous Maunder Minimum occurred in the 17th century and lasted between 50 and 60 years. During this time, winters were colder: for example the River Thames, which usually flows through London, notoriously froze over. The ice was so thick that people could walk from one side to the other. However, the citizens that lived in freezing, 17th century Europe survived these cold winters, and they didn't have the heating technology that we are fortunate enough to have today. If the next solar activity minimum does affect the weather on Earth, it will not be deadly for the human race.
Zharkova compared the Maunder Minimum with the one that her team predicted to occur around 15 years into the future. The next minimum will likely be a little bit shorter than the one in the 17th century, only lasting a maximum of three solar cycles (around 30 years).
The conditions during this next predicted minimum will still be chilly: “It will be cold, but it will not be this ice age when everything is freezing like in the Hollywood films,” Zharkova chuckled.
The predictions that Zharkova announced came from a mathematical program that analyzed data from the Sun. The team decided that they wanted to monitor the Sun's background magnetic field (which governs solar features like sunspots). You can see the team's data for cycles 21–23 published in The Astrophysical Journal.
After analyzing the solar data with their model, Zharkova's team noticed something that no one had ever expected before: that the Sun produces the magnetic waves in pairs. Previously everyone had thought that there was only a single source of magnetic waves in the Sun, but the evidence suggested two sources. The team used these observations to predict how the Sun's magnetic field would change in the future. “This is where we predicted this new Maunder minima,” Zharkova added.
She commented on how the changes in the Sun are likely to affect the Earth's environment. “During the minimum, the intensity of solar radiation will be reduced dramatically. So we will have less heat coming into the atmosphere, which will reduce the temperature.”
However, Zharkova ends with a word of warning: not about the cold but about humanity's attitude toward the environment during the minimum. We must not ignore the effects of global warming and assume that it isn't happening. “The Sun buys us time to stop these carbon emissions,” Zharkova says. The next minimum might give the Earth a chance to reduce adverse effects from global warming.