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Is a 'Mini Ice Age' on the Horizon?

Climate

You probably saw breathless news outlets reporting an impending "mini ice age." Before you stock up on mittens and parkas, read on to understand the full story.

Researchers from the University of Northumbria recently made headlines with an eye-opening presentation at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting postulating that solar activity could fall by 60 percent in the 2030s, possibly bringing the Earth into a “mini ice age.” The reason, they assert, is that fluid movements within the sun will converge in such a way that temperatures on Earth fall leading to conditions similar to the “Maunder Minimum,” a cold period between 1645—1715.

You can guess what happened next. The usual suspects of climate change deniers jumped on the study to suggest that climate predictions are too uncertain to trust. And so it doesn’t make sense to worry about reducing greenhouse gas emissions (especially if the Earth might actually get colder). Before everyone gets carried away, let’s consider the bigger scientific picture and two points in particular.

THE SUN ISN’T THE ONLY PLAYER IN THE CLIMATE SYSTEM.

Photo credit: Skeptical Science

Many factors influence surface temperatures on Earth along with the sun. Some are natural—such as volcanic activity and internal variability—while others are linked to humans. The magnitude of these individual factors may vary at any given moment and one could potentially offset or overshadow the effects of the others. Case in point: the sun has shown a slight cooling trend for at least the past 35 years, but 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.

In other words, even though recent solar activity suggests that the planet should already be cooling, global temperatures have kept rising. So even if we do see a period of exceptionally low solar activity, it doesn’t automatically mean a mini ice age is coming. Especially when there are other factors to offset any cooling (like, say, the highest levels of CO2 in the atmosphere in the last 800,000 years).

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THIS ISN’T THE ONLY STUDY ON MAUNDER MINIMUMS.Scientists have been studying Maunder Minimums for a long time. So if you want to know what the general consensus of years of research and hundreds of scientists is, it’s worth looking at what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the United Nations’ panel of scientists that gathers and assesses the research on climate change happening all over the world—has to say about periods of low solar activity. And what it has to say in its most recent report is this:

“Despite uncertainties in future solar activity, there is high confidence that the effects of solar activity within the range of grand solar maxima and minima will be much smaller than the changes due to anthropogenic effects.”

In other words, even if there is a solar minimum like the one predicted by the Northumbria study, any cooling effects on the climate will be offset by the warming effects of man-made climate change. Many studies back this conclusion up, but the point is that we’ve got to look at any new study in the context of the larger body of research before jumping to conclusions.

IT’S GETTING HOT IN HERE.

The Northumbria study makes an intriguing contribution to the research on the connection between solar activity and our climate. But the study alone doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Especially when the overwhelming body of scientific evidence suggests the planet is warming thanks to human activity—and will keep doing so unless we seriously cut down on fossil fuels. There are also plenty of climate impacts—like oceans becoming more and more acidic—that diminished solar activity wouldn’t even touch. Plus, the big-picture solution to climate change—a global shift to clean energy—will bring improvements in health and economic opportunities that will benefit the world, “mini ice age” or no.

Bottom line: It’s possible that decreasing solar activity could offset someand we repeat “some”—of the Earth’s warming, but the dangerous warming caused by burning fossil fuels will continue unless we take bold steps to change our energy use. So when it comes to talk about a new ice age, let’s ensure cooler heads prevail.

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The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.

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On Thursday, the U.S. Drought Monitor said nearly 60 percent of the state was abnormally dry, up from 46 percent just last week, according to The Mercury News in San Jose.

The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.

"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.

Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.

Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.

"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.

NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.

As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.

"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.

The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.

"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."