Over the course of several hundred years – most notably in the 17th and 18th centuries — winter temperatures in western Europe were much lower than normal. Glaciers came much farther south than they had before, and a famous painting shows people ice skating on the Thames river — which hasn’t been frozen since. The period is known as the Little Ice Age, and its cause has always been something of a mystery.
However, new research by scientists at the University of Colorado-Boulder (yay team!) may have pegged it: the LIA appears to have started abruptly in the late 13th century, between the years 1275 and 1300. Radiocarbon dating of plants from Baffin Island (north of the Hudson Bay in Canada) and sediment samples from a lake in Iceland indicate that there was a rapid onset of severe cooling at that time. It’s been thought that the cooling started around then, but it’s been hard to pin down until now.
More importantly, this narrows down the cause of the LIA: four tropical volcanoes erupted violently in that period. The ash would have darkened the atmosphere, letting slightly less sunlight down. Some of the gases emitted by volcanoes also cool the air. It seems clear these volcanoes are what triggered the Little Ice Age. But why did it last so long?
That may be due to what happened after the volcanoes erupted. Most likely, the warmer temperatures would have melted the north polar sea ice. This fresh water is less dense than salty water, so it would flow on top of the oceans, and wouldn’t have mixed well with the deeper water. This would have slowed the transport of heat from the equatorial waters back up north, cooling them further. That system is what maintained colder temperatures for so long. There were variations — the Ice Age was more of as series of pulses of temperature drops than one long period — but for centuries the heating of the Earth was disrupted in that region.
For a long time it’s been suspected that the Sun played a role here, too. During the period of 1645 to 1715 there were few or no sunspots, a time called the Maunder Minimum. Sunspots are dark, but they’re surrounded by a region, a rim, that emits strongly in the UV. These faculae, as they’re called, actually more than make up for the darker regions of the spots, so in reality sunspots add to the amount of light and heat the Earth receives, by a fraction of a percent. So an active Sun, it’s thought, may warm the Earth a teeny bit more.
Much ado was made over the recent news that the Sun’s magnetic activity may be cooling off over the next few years. Can this mean the Earth itself will literally cool off, slipping into an ice age? Some news sites are reporting it that way (of course, the execrable Daily Mail uses the headline "Earth facing a mini-Ice Age ‘within ten years’ due to rare drop in sunspot activity"; which isn’t even within a glancing blow of reality).
The answer — spoiler alert! — is almost certainly "no". I want to make sure that’s clear, because I will bet essentially any amount of money that some climate change denial sites will run with this story and claim that we don’t need to worry about global warming. That’s baloney, and what follows is why. The reasons take a minute to explain, but of course that’s where the cool stuff (haha!) is. So let’s take this one step at a time. And if you have the attention span of an E. coli bacterium, you can skip down to the conclusion section.
[Note: a lot of this is taken from my book "Death from the Skies!", where I interviewed approximately a bazillion people. One in particular was Caspar Ammann, who was very helpful in explaining the solar connection with the Little Ice Age to me.]
The Quiet Sun
The Sun has a magnetic cycle, its magnetic field waxing and waning in strength roughly every 11 years. The strength and complexity of the solar field governs a lot of the surface activity, including sunspots, solar flares, prominences, and coronal mass ejections.
Right now, in 2011, we’ve just left a period of an extended minimum, and the next max is due in late 2013 and early 2014. But scientists studying the Sun have seen three independent lines of reasoning indicating that the next rise to the solar peak, in 2022 or so, may be delayed or even not occur at all. I wrote about this in an earlier post, so you can get the details there. It’s the core of the "oncoming ice age" claim, so you should read it.
I’ll note right off the bat that not everyone agrees with these findings. Doug Biesecker, a solar physicist NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center [full disclosure: Doug is an acquaintance of mine; I interviewed him for an episode of "Bad Universe" about solar storms] , has written a document calling the findings into question. It’s not exactly a rebuttal; it’s more of a warning not to over-interpret the results. He also points out that a weak cycle may not have an effect on our climate; we simply don’t know for sure.
At this point you may be asking, so what? If the Sun has fewer sunspots and no flares, what difference does that make here on Earth? And how could it possibly trigger an ice age?