Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
Although our sun has reached its solar maximum—the peak of its 11-year cycle, where it should be bursting with sunspots and flares—it appears to be practically inactive. The last time this kind of low sunspot activity was observed, it resulted in a phase called the Maunder Minimum, which climatologists assess caused record low temperatures and harsh winters across Northern Europe for the latter half of the 17th Century (see the image below for a contemporary painting). The period is named for husband-and-wife solar astronomers who demonstrated a correlation between sunspot activity and the Earth’s climate.
A solar physicist at the National Solar Observatory (NSO) in Tucson, Arizona, stated he was “seeing a continuation in the decline of the sunspots’ mean magnetic field strengths and a weakening of the polar magnetic fields”, and assessed that if we were to enter a Maunder Minimum, it could persist until the 2080s. It could be happening faster than we think: analysis of ice-cores, which retain evidence of long-term solar activity, suggests this decline is the fastest in 10,000 years.
If you’re hoping another Maunder Minimum would counteract anthropogenic (human-caused) climate warming, sorry. Scientists say a sunspot lull won’t have much impact on the average global temperature, but could effect milder winters in Canada and Southern Europe and harsher winters in Northern Europe and the United States.
The Maunder Minimum (1645-1715) coincided with a miniature ice age in Europe. Londoners held “frost fairs” on the frozen Thames River and winters were deemed harsher than usual. How would a period like this affect our society today? If the recent polar weather systems paralyzing the United States are any indication, we may not have the necessary infrastructure to cope, especially in regions unaccustomed to wintery conditions (such as Alabama, which yesterday declared a state of emergency as an icy storm approached).
Imagine if this weather trend persisted. Basic infrastructure such as roads and bridges would require constant maintenance, perhaps becoming impassable at times. Water pipes might freeze and burst. Ice could damage electricity fixtures and deny warmth to thousands of homes. Demand for heating fuel could spark riots and black markets, leaving many literally out in the cold.
Cooling temperatures could shorten growing seasons or destroy certain crops altogether, resulting in food shortages and economic fallout. In areas where the solar activity precipitated milder winters, increased insect breeding could lead to spreading disease or agricultural damage. And all as a result of low sunspot activity. How climate change would exacerbate these extreme weather conditions is another matter entirely.