Real Climate Change We Might Want to Worry About

The sun follows an (approximately) 11-year cycle as sunspots ebb and flow.  The peak of these cycles, ie the number of sunspots at the cycle's maximum, is thought to correlate with the strength of the sun's output.  In the past, periods with very low sunspot activity through an entire cycle have correlated with very cold temperatures (e.g. the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age).

Well, NASA has updated its forecast for this cycle and it does not look good:

Current prediction for the next sunspot cycle maximum gives a smoothed sunspot number maximum of about 62 in July of 2013. We are currently over two years into Cycle 24. The predicted size would make this the smallest sunspot cycle in nearly 200 years.

The low cycle 200 years ago coincided with a decade or more of wicked-cold temperatures, particularly in Northern Europe  (think Napoleon's army freezing to death in 1812).

One of the reasons this probably has not gotten much coverage is that climate scientists have worked hard in the media to attribute the vast majority of past warming, particularly in the period 1978-1998, to ppm changes in CO2 concentration.  But this same 2-decade period saw extremely high solar activity (as measured by sunspots) and ocean cycles like the PDO in the warm phase.  To maximize how much past warming was attributed to CO2, warming alarmists had to take the fairly absurd position that these ocean cycles and changes in solar output had only trivial effects on temperatures (much more here).

Well, we may find out over the next few years just how trivial Mr. Sun is or is not to the climate.  And we may well find out something else many skeptics have said for years -- for activities like agriculture, cooling is way more damaging than warming.  In the Middle Ages, agriculture boomed from 1100-1300 even as temperatures rose higher than they are today (at least in Europe).  In the first decades of the 1300's, cooling led to agricultural failure and famine, famines that are often credited for weakening the population and thus increasing the mortality from the Black Death a few years later.

  • ADiff

    Possible hedge opportunity in several commodities.

  • Dan

    Interesting post. We will eventually experience another glaciation, as well. The earth has been in a warm era between glacial events for the last 10,000 years or so, and is already overdue for glaciers to come back. The damage to civilization should a full ice age resume is incalculable.

  • Evil Red Scandi

    Just as we're sticking knives in the backs of our best energy sources. Our wise overlords really have an incredible sense of timing.

  • caseyboy

    Don't let anyone know, but I'm starting a carbon debit exchange. You give me money and I create carbon or cut down a tree, whichever you prefer. For an extra 25% I'll cut the tree down with a poorly maintained power saw.

  • caseyboy

    By the way, I'm offering ground-floor investment opportunities in my exchange. I'll take canned foods, soap, toilet paper or other barter friendly commodities.

  • Dave Dodds

    To expand on what Dan said above, the Vostok ice cores show that the past 420,000 years have had 5 interglacials and 4 glacial periods. The glacials typically last 90,000 years while the interglacials last about 10,000. The current interglacial has been blessedly long and will surely end when various natural cycles (ADO, PDO, sunspots, Malinkovich, etc.) combine in a constructive way. The next glacial will be far more devastating than the Little Ice Age - which was bad enough for people living at northern mid-latitudes. Climate research should be focused on what triggers a glacial period and how fast it might come on. Be glad for the recent minor warming.

  • perlhaqr

    Evil Red: And for double good timing, the monetary crisis should coincide nicely with the crop failure to make food really expensive.

  • SJChannel

    Too bad, Caseyboy -- it's already been done. Google "carbon debits".

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Even more likely, alas, is that a weak Cycle 24 is a leading indicator for the onset of a Maunder-type event beginning with Cycle 25 or 26. The namesake event brought on devastating cold and starvation for the latter two thirds of the 17th Century. This was the childhood and youth of Vivaldi, who penned sonnets to accompany each of his 'Four Seasons' concertos, including this one, for WINTER. Remember, he's living in Venice, on the Adriatic --

    "Trembling with cold amidst the freezing snow, while a frightful wind harshly blows, running and stamping one's feet every minute, and feeling one's teeth chatter from the extreme cold;

    "Spending quiet contented days by the fire while the rain outside drenches people by the hundreds;

    "Walking on ice, and moving cautiously, with slow steps, for fear of falling, spinning around, slipping, falling down, again walking on ice and running fast until the ice cracks and splits; hearing Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds at war burst forth from the bolted doors - this is winter, but it also brings joy!"

    Maunder-type events appear to have a cycle on the order of 300 or 350 years, so it's about time. The typical result is to shift effective agricultural climate to something like 300 to 500 miles farther north.

    Amongst historically noteworthy impacts of Maunder-type events, in the 14th Century, shortages of food gave rise to militant Islam which proceeded to slaughter Christians (then in a majority) across much of southern Asia. The Chinese Ming Dynasty arose out of the chaos and instability of the 14th Century there.

    Similar cooling in the 4th and 5th Centuries had much the same result, not only in China -- where it was not resolved until the rise of the Tang -- but also in Rome, where falling agricultural productivity contributed to the failure of that empire.

    In other words, serious stuff, and we should take it much more seriously than short-term warming.

  • chuck martel

    There probably isn't much of anything anybody can do about glaciation or Maunder-type events. And, in any case, none of us will be around to witness it. Sorry, I just can't get too worried about it.

  • Makes more sense (regarding climate change) than the C02 thing. However, the amount of CO2 the oceans has been absorbing (along with industrial chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides, herbicides, etc) has been polluting and changing the Ph balance of the oceans while creating dead zones along the continental shelves destroying life in the ocean and possibly endangering the food chain, which we haven't heard much of either.

    The longer nations have been industrialized/modernized, the more dead zones along the coasts of those nations. For example, the US east coast has more dead spots than the west coast. Europe is a mess and China is starting to grow dead zones along its coast since industrialization there is only a few decades old.

    On the other hand, if C02 does lead to global warming and reduced sun spot activity to global cooling, we may want to keep pumping C02 into the atmosphere to keep us warm a bit longer while we destroy the food chain in the ocean then don't have enough food to feed an overpopulated earth.

    Once the famines strike, which we may not be able to do anything about since the sun and our own activities are contributing to the problem (overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers leading to a reduction of top soil), then we will have worldwide conflicts that will make the World Wars of the 20th century pale in comparison.

    The good thing is that most of the people that are alive today will be gone by the time the situation becomes critical and humankind's survival is threatened once again. Meaning, our folly will cause suffering after we are gone. We live the good life ignoring all the damage we have caused and our children's children pay the price and maybe the survival of the species. Evolution will win out. Ten thousand years after we are gone, life on earth will be different but will have recovered to become something else. The age of the two-legged animal that thought so much of itself will be history as we follow the path of the dinosaurs into extinction due to our own folly.

  • Dan

    Great post, Lloyd.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    Lloyd: the deal on the dead zones is this: in freshwater systems the limiting nutrient is phosphorus, and in saltwater systems it is nitrogen. In both cases the culprit is agricultural fertilizers, given that phosphates were removed from detergents about 40 years ago.

    In saltwater systems, runoff from high-nitrogen farming -- overwhelmingly corn -- contains enough nitrogen to stimulate algal blooms, the decomposition of which strips oxygen from the water, creating the "dead zones." Fish, shrimp, and so on simply avoid them.

    Wanna solve the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico? Kill ethanol subsidies. Oh, wait a minute. Archer Daniels Midland is by far the biggest player in the ethanol boondoggle. And they were the number one contributor to Barck Obama, both in his 2006 Senate campaign and his 2008 Presidential effort.

    Chuck: how many people alive today are going to be alive fifty years from now? Certainly most under 35. A Maunder event will affect them profoundly, to say nothing of my 8-week-old daughter, whose life will almost certainly be dominated by such things.

  • caseyboy

    Lloyd, why that was almost Biblical.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    > (think Napoleon’s army freezing to death in 1812).

    Although it is also attributed to volcanic activity (which is hardly out of the question, either), think ofThe Year Without a Summer, 1816.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    > I’ll take canned foods, soap, toilet paper or other barter friendly commodities.

    Casey, I strongly recommend spices. Small, highly portable, and high value-to-weight ratio (efore modern shipping, whole peppercorns sold for more than their weight in gold). Other non-perishable spices (some don't "age" well) are equally desirable.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    > Climate research should be focused on what triggers a glacial period and how fast it might come on.

    Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, in Fallen Angels, note (presumably factually accurately though it is a work of fiction -- they're known for attempting to be factually accurate) point out that in one recent period that The Thames went from hippos to polar bears in significantly less than a century.

    Dunno if that's since been repudiated (such as, say, warm-blooded dinos seems to have been), but it's a sobering thought if true.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    > There probably isn’t much of anything anybody can do about glaciation or Maunder-type events

    1) see what I said above. See also what Bart said. You're likely wrong.
    2) There's a lot we can likely do, the real question is what. It's a chaotic system, and we need a lot more honest understanding of the process. The tipping point may easily be within the range of what we can do -- especially if we have an active space program. There have been some calculations that suggest we could increase solar input onto the earth's surface by a notable amount, several percent (which might easily match the solar output downturns, they really aren't THAT large in percentage values) with a set of ultra-thin mylar mirrors reflecting sunlight back to the earth in orbit around us. Combine that with a deliberate attempt to increase greenhouse gases (more cows, anyone?) and some soot applied to arctic regions to increase the warming there (thus reducing glacial expansion, decreasing reflectivity of the earth rather than increasing it, as glacial advance does) and it's quite possibly within our power.

    All of "2" would not be cheap, but lies well within our economic abilities if we chose to do it -- likely much cheaper and more useful (an industrial-level space presence would hardly be unfruitful) than the currently proposed anti-industry crap promoted by the Bolivians and other green idiots.

    The really tricky question is "how much is the right amount, and when, if ever?"

    With a chaotic system like climate that's a difficult question needing far more honest and rigorous study, and stuff we want to start studying NOW before we NEED an answer.