UPDATED: This opinion piece from Professor Henrik Svensmark was published September 9th in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Originally the translation was from Google translation with some post translation cleanup of jumbled words or phrases by myself. Now as of Sept 12, the translation is by Nigel Calder. Hat tip to Carsten Arnholm of Norway for bringing this to my attention and especially for translation facilitation by Ágúst H Bjarnason – Anthony
Translation approved by Henrik Svensmark
While the Sun sleeps
Henrik Svensmark, Professor, Technical University of Denmark, Copenhagen
“In fact global warming has stopped and a cooling is beginning. No climate model has predicted a cooling of the Earth – quite the contrary. And this means that the projections of future climate are unreliable,” writes Henrik Svensmark.
The star that keeps us alive has, over the last few years, been almost free of sunspots, which are the usual signs of the Sun’s magnetic activity. Last week [4 September 2009] the scientific team behind the satellite SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory) reported, “It is likely that the current year’s number of blank days will be the longest in about 100 years.” Everything indicates that the Sun is going into some kind of hibernation, and the obvious question is what significance that has for us on Earth.
If you ask the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which represents the current consensus on climate change, the answer is a reassuring “nothing”. But history and recent research suggest that is probably completely wrong. Why? Let’s take a closer look.
Solar activity has always varied. Around the year 1000, we had a period of very high solar activity, which coincided with the Medieval Warm Period. It was a time when frosts in May were almost unknown – a matter of great importance for a good harvest. Vikings settled in Greenland and explored the coast of North America. On the whole it was a good time. For example, China’s population doubled in this period.
But after about 1300 solar activity declined and the world began to get colder. It was the beginning of the episode we now call the Little Ice Age. In this cold time, all the Viking settlements in Greenland disappeared. Sweden surprised Denmark by marching across the ice, and in London the Thames froze repeatedly. But more serious were the long periods of crop failures, which resulted in poorly nourished populations, reduced in Europe by about 30 per cent because of disease and hunger.
It’s important to realise that the Little Ice Age was a global event. It ended in the late 19th Century and was followed by increasing solar activity. Over the past 50 years solar activity has been at its highest since the medieval warmth of 1000 years ago. But now it appears that the Sun has changed again, and is returning towards what solar scientists call a “grand minimum” such as we saw in the Little Ice Age.
The match between solar activity and climate through the ages is sometimes explained away as coincidence. Yet it turns out that, almost no matter when you look and not just in the last 1000 years, there is a link. Solar activity has repeatedly fluctuated between high and low during the past 10,000 years. In fact the Sun spent about 17 per cent of those 10,000 years in a sleeping mode, with a cooling Earth the result.
You may wonder why the international climate panel IPCC does not believe that the Sun’s changing activity affects the climate. The reason is that it considers only changes in solar radiation. That would be the simplest way for the Sun to change the climate – a bit like turning up and down the brightness of a light bulb.
Satellite measurements have shown that the variations of solar radiation are too small to explain climate change. But the panel has closed its eyes to another, much more powerful way for the Sun to affect Earth’s climate. In 1996 we discovered a surprising influence of the Sun – its impact on Earth’s cloud cover. High-energy accelerated particles coming from exploded stars, the cosmic rays, help to form clouds.
When the Sun is active, its magnetic field is better at shielding us against the cosmic rays coming from outer space, before they reach our planet. By regulating the Earth’s cloud cover, the Sun can turn the temperature up and down. High solar activity means fewer clouds and and a warmer world. Low solar activity and poorer shielding against cosmic rays result in increased cloud cover and hence a cooling. As the Sun’s magnetism doubled in strength during the 20th century, this natural mechanism may be responsible for a large part of global warming seen then.
That also explains why most climate scientists try to ignore this possibility. It does not favour their idea that the 20th century temperature rise was mainly due to human emissions of CO2. If the Sun provoked a significant part of warming in the 20th Century, then the contribution by CO2 must necessarily be smaller.
Ever since we put forward our theory in 1996, it has been subjected to very sharp criticism, which is normal in science.
First it was said that a link between clouds and solar activity could not be correct, because no physical mechanism was known. But in 2006, after many years of work, we completed experiments at DTU Space that demonstrated the existence of a physical mechanism. The cosmic rays help to form aerosols, which are the seeds for cloud formation.
Then came the criticism that the mechanism we found in the laboratory could not work in the real atmosphere, and therefore had no practical significance. We have just rejected that criticism emphatically.
It turns out that the Sun itself performs what might be called natural experiments. Giant solar eruptions can cause the cosmic ray intensity on earth to dive suddenly over a few days. In the days following an eruption, cloud cover can fall by about 4 per cent. And the amount of liquid water in cloud droplets is reduced by almost 7 per cent. Here is a very large effect – indeed so great that in popular terms the Earth’s clouds originate in space.
So we have watched the Sun’s magnetic activity with increasing concern, since it began to wane in the mid-1990s.
That the Sun might now fall asleep in a deep minimum was suggested by solar scientists at a meeting in Kiruna in Sweden two years ago. So when Nigel Calder and I updated our book The Chilling Stars, we wrote a little provocatively that “we are advising our friends to enjoy global warming while it lasts.”
In fact global warming has stopped and a cooling is beginning. Mojib Latif from the University of Kiel argued at the recent UN World Climate Conference in Geneva that the cooling may continue through the next 10 to 20 years. His explanation was a natural change in the North Atlantic circulation, not in solar activity. But no matter how you interpret them, natural variations in climate are making a comeback.
The outcome may be that the Sun itself will demonstrate its importance for climate and so challenge the theories of global warming. No climate model has predicted a cooling of the Earth – quite the contrary. And this means that the projections of future climate are unreliable. A forecast saying it may be either warmer or colder for 50 years is not very useful, and science is not yet able to predict solar activity.
So in many ways we stand at a crossroads. The near future will be extremely interesting. I think it is important to accept that Nature pays no heed to what we humans think about it. Will the greenhouse theory survive a significant cooling of the Earth? Not in its current dominant form. Unfortunately, tomorrow’s climate challenges will be quite different from the greenhouse theory’s predictions. Perhaps it will become fashionable again to investigate the Sun’s impact on our climate.
Professor Henrik Svensmark is director of the Center for Sun-Climate Research at DTU Space. His book The Chilling Stars has also been published in Danish as Klima og Kosmos Gads Forlag, DK ISBN 9788712043508)