Evidence has mounted that global warming began in the last century and that humans are, at least in part, responsible. The concern is that the warming of our climate will greatly affect its habitability for many species, including humans. Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences concur that this is the case. But some argue that this thinking is too limited. They say that too many scientists are either ignoring, or don’t understand, the well-established fact that Earth’s climate has changed rapidly in the past and could change rapidly in the future—in either direction.
Evidence for abrupt climate change is readily found in ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica. One of the best known examples of such an event is the Younger Dryas cooling of about 12,000 years ago, named after the arctic wildflower found in northern European sediments. This event began and ended rather abruptly, and for its entire 1000 year duration the North Atlantic region was about 5°C colder. Could something like this happen again? It sure could, and because the changes can happen all within one decade—we might not even see it coming.
The Younger Dryas occurred at a time when orbital forcing should have continued to drive climate to the present warm state. The unexplained phenomenon has been the topic of much intense scientific debate, as well as other millennial scale events.
Now an 11-year low in Sunspot activity has raised fears among a small number of scientists that rather than getting warmer, the Earth could possibly be about to return to another cooling period. The idea is especially intriguing considering that most of the world is in preparation for global warming. Could we be preparing for the wrong scenario?
A sunspot is a region on the Sun that is cooler than the rest and therefore appears darker. One theory is that a strong solar magnetic field, which causes plenty of sunspot activity, protects the earth from cosmic rays, but that when the field is weak - during low sunspot activity - the rays can penetrate into the lower atmosphere and cloud cover increases, which in turn leads to a cooler surface.
Geophysicist Phil Chapman, the first Australian to become an astronaut with NASA, notes that pictures from the US Solar and Heliospheric Observatory show that there are currently no spots on the sun. He believes this is the reason why the world cooled rapidly between January last year and January this year, by about 0.7C.
"This is the fastest temperature change in the instrumental record, and it puts us back to where we were in 1930," Dr Chapman writes in The Australian today. "If the temperature does not soon recover, we will have to conclude that global warming is over."
However, scientists from the US National Center for Atmospheric Research published a report in 2006 that claims the Sun likely has a negligible effect on climate change. Another study, recently published study in the Institute of Physics' Environmental Research Letters, by researchers from Lancaster and Durham Universities found that there was no strong correlation between cosmic rays and the production of low cloud cover. If that is correct, it would mean the lack of sunspots is not necessarily an indicator of higher cloud cover and subsequent future cooling.
While it’s true that some world regions have experienced record colds recently, other areas do seem to be warming up. In Australia, The Bureau of Meteorology says that temperatures there have been warmer than the 1960-90 average since the late 1970s. Even though there have been some cooler years mixed in, overall they are now 0.3C higher than the long-term average. Other countries are experiencing similar upward trends. On the other hand, since widespread temperature records have only been kept for a relatively short period of the Earth’s history, it’s hard to know exactly what these increases mean from a long-term perspective.
Cooling, or “Little Ice Age” proponents like Chapman, say that it could still swing either way. He proposes preventive measures to slow any potential cooling, such as bulldozing Siberian and Canadian snow to make it dirty and less reflective. "My guess is that the odds are now at least 50:50 that we will see significant cooling rather than warming in coming decades."
Canadian scientist Kenneth Tapping of the National Research Council has also noted that solar activity has entered into an unusually inactive phase, but what they means—if anything—is still anyone’s guess. Another scientist, Oleg Sorokhtin, a fellow of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences agrees with Chapman. Sorokhtin believes that, in spite of the results of certain recent studies, lack of sunspots does indicate a coming cooling period. In fact, he calls manmade climate change "a drop in the bucket" compared to the cold brought on by inactive solar phases.
But while Sorokhtin is advising people to "stock up on fur coats", the vast majority of prominent scientists believe the bulk of evidence points towards an overall warming trend, and that anomalies and exceptions to the rule do not make a significant dent in this consensus.
The Daily Galaxy asked climate expert Thomas Reichler, what he has to say about it. According to him, anyone claiming that the Earth isn’t getting warmer, or that it’s perhaps even getting colder, simply isn’t looking at the actual data.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the world is in a warming phase,” Reichler told the Daily Galaxy, “and that conclusion is supported by 99% of all serious scientists, so I’m certainly not alone in that certainty.”
Reichler is probably right, but it wouldn’t be the first time if the fringe opinion turned out to be onto something. But from a broader perspective, does it really matter who’s “right” as far as preparations go? Whether the climate gets cooler or warmer, or does nothing at all, people will still need massive amounts of energy. Even if we were to take the reverse approach and intentionally increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in order to stave off cooling, it would likely have little effect other than to further pollute the environment with standard energy consumption’s many toxic byproducts.
Are humans the major factor in the current warming trend? Maybe, maybe not. But what can’t be disputed is that humans are polluting the planet. Current and future weather conditions do not change the fact that using oil and coal for energy isn’t a good long-term idea. The need for cleaner energy, cleaner air and cleaner water has never been greater. The widespread call for better handling of resources, and habitat protection doesn’t change with the thermometer.
Our commitment to stop polluting our water systems with pesticides and other dangerous chemicals should be as great as ever, with or without climate change considerations. Dismal air quality now poses significant health risks, especially in urban areas. Those who equate their global warming skepticism with an “anything goes” attitude regarding the environment are seriously jeopardizing the health of our planet and their own health along with it. If we prepare for global warming in ways that help protect the environment—we’ll still be a lot better off—even on the off chance that we end up with a mini Ice Age instead.
Posted by Rebecca Sato.
Related Galaxy posts:
Abrupt Climate Change: Inevitable Surprises
Cosmic Rays -The Cause of Global Warming?
The Milky Way Enigma -How Galactic Forces May Control Life on Earth
Are Global Warming Models Accurately Predicting Our Future? New Study Reveals the Answer—A Galaxy Interview
As Temperatures Hit Record Lows, Global Warming Takes a Punch to the Gut