We’re just one harvest away from mass starvation and death.
This recent post was on the fact that the Sun’s EUV emissions had fallen to solar minimum-like levels well ahead of solar minimum. The implication was that the Solar Cycle 24/25 minimum was either going to be very deep and prolonged, or that Solar Cycle 24 would be very short, which in turn would be strange for a weak cycle.
The indicator of the EUV flux is the Lyman alpha index. To recap, this chart shows the index over the last three cycles, starting from solar minimum:
Figure 1: Lyman alpha index Solar Cycles 22,23,24
Figure 1 shows that Solar Cycle 24 has reached solar minimum-like levels three years ahead of minimum, if Solar Cycle was going to be 12 years long. What happens at solar minimum is that the proportion of EUV as part of Total Solar Irradiance falls. For the 23/24 minimum, the extent of the fall was a surprise, with the density of the thermosphere shrinking 30%.
As they say, read the whole thing if you’re science-inclined.
Now solar activity measured with modern equipment correlates with sunspot activity: the more sunspots, the more active our sun is. And the last time we saw a slowdown in sunspot activity was the Maunder Minimum, which, despite efforts by Global Warming Alarmists to erase history (a breed I separate out from honest climate researchers, including those who believe we are seeing man-made global warming as well as urban heat islands and man-made land-use changes affecting both local and global climate), correlates very well with the Little Ice Age. And, despite the efforts of Global Warming Alarmists whose agenda seems more about government control than it is about saving the environment, the Little Ice Age is a period of cold weather well recorded in western history by painters, authors and others.
Correlation, of course, is not causation, but at an intuitive level it makes sense: the sun is the primary source of the energy that powers our environment. (Volcanic activity and radioactive decay also help warm the Earth, but they are extremely minor relative to solar insolation.) And if the amount of heat given off by the Sun decreases 1% in the short term, we should expect the Earth to also cool–though not quite as much thanks to heat retention and insulation provided by the atmosphere. In the long term we would expect the Earth to eventually cool 1% as heat is lost to space.
(And keep in mind that this is 1% measured in units Kelvin, so if the average temperature of the Earth is around 0°C, a 1% loss in temperature would be a 2.7°C drop (0°C = 273.15°K, and 1% of 273.15°K = 2.7315.)
We also know that solar insolation correlates to solar activity as measured above, and correlates to sunspot activity. Further, we know solar insolation appears to be a climate driver in the El Niño/La Niña cycle in the Pacific–though it’s effects are often dismissed by Global Warming Alarmists, many of whom wouldn’t know how to read a scientific paper and evaluate the validity of the evidence provided. (Again, I’m differentiating between the popularizers and alarmists from climate scientists who work the field, many of whom have publicly supported the notion of man-made global warming driven by CO2 emissions.)
With all this talk about global warming, what would concern me about a massive solar minimum is that it may herald the arrival of another Little Ice Age.
From a paleo-climate perspective, we are, in fact, in the middle of an Ice Age that began 2.6 million years ago at the start of the Pleistocene period. Evidence of the current ice age still exists in the ice sheets covering Greenland, the Arctic and the Antarctic.
(I’ve contended elsewhere part of the reason why we may not have any records of ancient settlements or other human activity prior to the start of the Holocene is because the previous ice age saw significantly lower sea levels–and given that most human settlements tend to be along the coastline, most ancient human activity from 12000 years ago would now be miles off the current coastline, in areas not well explored.
If the “flooded world” of our current interglacial is true, then it is quite possible where we should be looking for evidence of human settlements prior to current recorded history is along the edge of the continental shelves which surround all of the world. Otherwise it’d be like future archaeologists 10,000 years from now in a world where sea levels rose 200 feet looking for the lost city of New York in the hills of New Jersey.)
Today’s world, a world which has seen the expansion of civilization, the creation of modern nation states, the invention of science, and the massive engineering projects which led to today’s nearly 8 billion people living in a standard of wealth that would shock and amaze ancient cave men–it’s all built on an environmental anomaly, a brief warm period which may only last another few thousand years.
So another little ice age is not a shocking and unthinkable outcome of today’s decline in solar activity.
And here is what worries me.
Today’s modern world of nearly 8 billion people is being fed by massive agricultural projects that are highly dependent on a lack of frosts, a lack of snow, and warm weather. We are also inadvertently increasing crop yields by increasing carbon dioxide levels: plants do better with higher CO2 levels, which is why greenhouse growers routinely use CO2 generators to increase productivity.
A little ice age would knock all that into a cocked hat.
I am far more worried about a cold spell in North America lasting a few decades than I am about global warming increasing temperatures by 2°C-3°C over the next hundred years.
That’s because while the effects of warmer weather (ranging from costal flooding to increased instances of diseases to rising violence rates) are all hypothetical outcomes based on what are, fundamentally, unproven observation–“tipping points” are tipping points because at some point something that hasn’t tipped yet gets tipped, meaning by definition they are unobserved phenomenon–we know cold spells decreases crop yields.
We’ve seen cold spells destroy crop yields. Every winter there is a cold snap somewhere which hurts crops–which is why farmers diversify crops and engage in long-term investment strategies to reduce risk. (Farming today is quite a sophisticated technological and financial business.)
Now, imagine a cold snap everywhere.
The thing about our modern food supply is that the food you are eating today was generally harvested no more than a few days or a few weeks ago. That hamburger you’re eating today was a cow no more than 14 days ago. Some agricultural products last longer; whole wheat berries can last for years, which is why wheat is a commonly used product. But if not stored properly, wheat berries will only last a few months.
Which means if there is a projected decline in agricultural output over the next 20 years, unless we make significant changes to the stuff we plant, we’re screwed.
And I mean “mass starvation on a planetary scale” screwed.
So I’m far more worried about a decline in solar output than I am in global warming. The effects of a world-wide drop in temperatures in terms of agricultural output is well observed; every year we hear about a cold snap somewhere increasing the price of some product or another.
And a sudden world-wide cold snap would potentially lead to a decline in the number of calories available for people to consume–no matter how many breathless stories we get about this year and the next being the “warmest years ever in recorded history.”
I don’t care about alarmism. I care about food security.
And please don’t talk to me about the hypothetical stories about plants receiving too much CO2 and warming killing plants, with images of dust bowls (which was triggered in part by poor soil management, not climate). If you want to sell that story, sell it to greenhouse equipment buyers who routinely increase CO2 levels in their greenhouses to around 1,200 ppm–three times higher than today’s 400 ppm levels as measured on the top of the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.
A world wide multi-decade cold snap would create immediate food security problems.
Yet as far as I can tell, no-one is talking about it. I guarantee you I’m going to get a lot of flack for posting this essay for suggesting that perhaps we should keep an eye out in the event temperatures start declining towards a new Little Ice Age.
Sadly we won’t see this coming, given the cherry picking of surface temperatures taking place in the current surface temperature records by picking airport temperatures near urbanized areas. (Urban heat islands are a well-observed phenomenon; one only has to watch the car thermostat as you drive up highway 85 from Southern Virginia to the Washington D.C. area; as you move closer to urban areas, the temperature inevitably rises as you emerge from forested areas into areas of concrete, metal and asphalt. Trees have mechanisms to regulate local temperature, from shading to evaporation; concrete, metal and asphalt do not.)
And sadly I suspect we’ll continue to be in some sort of denial, even if the Thames River starts to freeze over enough to allow a new wave of Frost Fairs to take place in London. I’m sure that would be sold as the effects of global warming on a local climate.