With a Solar Minimum and La Nina’s, Why isn’t it Really, Really Cold?

2013 is witnessing another year of very low sunspot activity, showing that we are in a years-long solar minimum. It may not last much longer, but something is going on more than just the usual drop in solar activity every 11 years. Even that 11-year cycle affects the weather. But we’ve seen remarkably low sunspot activity for several years now, with 2009 being especially quiet. We are probably at the bottom of the 100-year Gleissberg Cycle, and the limited sunspot activity could last for another 10 years or so.

In history, if you have several years in a row of low sunspot activity, it can affect the climate (it makes it colder). If you have a really long period of few sunspots, as with the Maunder Minimum of 1645-1715, many scientists and historians believe it can produce freezing temperatures. (there is no evidence that we are entering another Maunder Minimum, contrary to what some sensationalists have suggested).

Although we historians don’t want to hang everything on one explanation such as climate, climate does have a big impact on history. The Little Ice Age 1250-1850 is thought to be implicated in big changes like the turn to potato cultivation when local European crops failed because of the cool temperatures and the import from the New World thrived better. Big social conflicts such as the Thirty Years’ War and the French Revolution were also driven in part by climate stresses on agriculture and consequent bread shortages. Those denialists who write in to tell me that as a historian I ought not to be pronouncing on climate issues do not know very much about contemporary historical methods.

We need a lot of work to prove it, but the Maunder Minimum coincides with the fall of the Safavid Empire (1502-1722) of Iran and the great Mughals (1526-1707) in India, and these events may have been driven in part by climate change. Climate change has different impacts on different parts of the world, but these were agrarian empires and colder weather inevitably affects crops. It could be that the lack of sunspots in the Maunder Minimum worked to much reduce crop yields in Iran and India and so to impoverish the Safavids and Mughals, weakening them and making them ripe for challenge by pastoralists (the Afghan tribes that excel in using marginal land to raise livestock overthrew the Safavids, and the Mughals were challenged by the mobile Marathas and later the Afghans).

So if we are at the bottom of the hundred-year Gleissberg cycle with few sunspots for years, it should be really, really cold, right?

Then, there is the cyclical but somewhat unpredictable El Nino/ La Nina phenomenon in the center-east Pacific Ocean. There have been an unusual number of cool La Ninas in the past 15 years.

So it should be really, really cold, right? Back to back La Ninas, plus a Gleissberg solar minimum.

Then, it turns out that the upper waters of the world’s oceans are warming up faster than in the past. The oceans are very deep and very cold, and take a long time to warm and to circulate the heat. But even they are noticeably heating up. Some parts of the ocean, such as the Greenland Sea, are heating up 10 times faster than the rest of the ocean. So much that it is like a Hiroshima atomic bomb going off every second for thirty years in a row. If the oceans are absorbing a lot of the extra heat produced by greenhouse gases trapping the sun’s energy on earth, then the atmosphere would not have to warm as much.

So it should be really, really, really cold.

But it isn’t cold. Warming has continued during the past decade and a half. Sophie Lewis writes, “The last decade was the hottest on record globally. Each year from 2000 to 2010, except 2008, was in the 10 warmest recorded globally.”

That conclusion is terrifying. We should be shivering. We’re sweltering. All the solar minimum and the La Ninas and the displacement of warming to the seas have been able to do is slightly slow the rate in the warming of surface temperatures. If we’d had normal sunspot activity and lots of El Ninos and if the oceans hadn’t started taking on some of the extra heat, the thermometers would be bursting the way they do in a Roadrunner cartoon.

The world has already warmed by 1 degree C. in the past century, and we are locking ourselves into a 2-4 degrees C. rise in this century. (Hint: a 4 degrees C. increase might well make the climate unstable and endanger human survival).

The paid-for denialists who will try to tell you that global warming has stopped and we don’t need to get off oil, gas and coal tout de suite are snowing you. And they are drowning your grandchildren as sure as if they were pushing their heads under the waves and holding them there while the little ones thrash and their eyes bulge and their lungs fill with water. All to make another buck off their dirty fuel. If you have a house and you haven’t had it properly insulated and haven’t made an appointment to put solar panels on it, you aren’t helping save humankind.

13 Responses

  1. Your piece is very interesting but somehow falls down towards the end when you start to talk about the PAID for denialists. The inference of this comment is that those on the other side of the argument (the global warming enthusiast) don’t get any funding. This is patently untrue: they get far more funding than almost anyone else in academia and science. In fact global warming has become big business in its own way and the big bucks are paid to the global warming enthusiasts, not the other way round. It seems to me your historical research is is based on a rather tenuous interpretation of history as we know it. But the problem with history its anything but reliable and you can’t really use historical ‘guess work’ as an alternative to hard science. Your contention that past ancient wars are in some way connected to global climate change is stretching your case well beyond the limits of credibility. As far as I can see both sides of the argument have tried to link their case with just about anything that might bolster their claims, even if the links border on the bizarre.

    • You are presenting yourself as a centrist using a balance that is simply false. What seems to you a more compelling scenario? Regional environmental groups and community activists and academics using only very limited budgets, and green energy companies limited profits to spread a false alarm, or big oil and coal using their vast, obscene profits to spread disinformation? The comparison is prima facie absurd. We know that the Koch Brothers and Exxon Mobile fund denialism (as do other well-healed “conservative” “think” tanks) – it is very well documented. It is pretty telling when two of the institutions most despised by the left, the Pentagon and the IMF, themselves issue white papers stating that there is simply no greater threat to security, stability, and economic growth than human driven global warming.

      As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, over my half-century lifetime I have seen our waters dry up and fisheries collapse. I have seen acidification of our waters driven by dumping CO2 into the atmosphere that have caused the oyster and crabbing industries serious loss. Dead zones off the coast have made once rich waters vast deserts. I have seen my neighbors in our farm country forced to shift and change crops and lose income in the process as a result of warming temperatures. As food producers they are scared, and everyone else should be too – damned scared. Farmers are used to disaster, but they also depend on some degree of climate predictability and climate stability, and that has vanished.

      As for history, your critique of Professor Cole is simply incorrect. To cite but one of the most recent examples: If something as relatively “benign” as record heat in Russia several years ago could lead to the decimation of the wheat harvest, hence to higher bread prices in the Middle East, and to all of the attendant political instability, imagine as things get worse. Resources become scarce, people displaced by climate disasters increase, political instability becomes a norm. What other future can we now imagine as sea levels rise and 10% of Egypt’s population (to take just one country) is potentially displaced in the not-too-distant future? (Professor Cole recently had an excellent post on climate change and Egypt.) What happens as warmer temperatures breed new and potentially dangerous pathogens? It is only a matter of time before this results in a human made catastrophe (a large general war, a regional nuclear war, a newly mutated virus, or – well, any number of horrifying scenarios).

      Do we really want to see if the biosphere can tolerate small-scale nuclear exchange (say between India and Pakistan over water when the Himalayas cease to have snows, a disaster in real time now)? Look, time is not on our species’ side: two freight trains loaded with TNT are headed at one another. The first is human driven climate change; the second is human behavior in the face of scarcity, disease, political upheaval, and a ruined environment. The future is here – just ask the Russians, the Tunisians, the farmers of sub-Sahara Africa, the victims of the typhoon earlier this year in the Philippines, our neighbors in Colorado, the residents still recovering after Sandy.

      • GWC: Broken record time for me again — here’s a link to what the War Department has in mind for how to “address” those nearly infinitely large problems you highlight so passionately:

        Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Trends and Implications of Climate Change for National and
        International Security — October 2011

        link to fas.org

        Made me sick to read it, to see what it reveals about the way our rulers view what they have set in motion, what is coming at us so quickly. Sales opportunities for US products — weapons, and farm and construction equipment, among other wisdom. “Realists.” My a__.

  2. There are a few big “oh no’s” that our government, both Dear Leader and the Loyal Opposition (see footnote [1]), do not want us to understand, and most of them stem (ironic use of the term) from our inability to comprehend global climate change.

    Civilization has been built upon the ocean floor in actuality, and also figuratively in layers of oil bearing rock. The latter will cause the loss of the former, and depletion of the later will also lead to the end of our current form of civilization. Dr. C is a historian whereas I am merely somewhat STEM capable, but sometimes history causes technology, and other times technology causes history.

    Here is a brief and partial list of the “oh no’s” DLLO would like us to ignore.

    The geometry of modern civilization depends of petroleum to function. Without enough petroleum to waste on driving around, we all have to relocate to the geometry of the 1800’s, and rather quickly, too, before the food in the pantry runs out. We will have to relocate to family farms, of which there are not enough to go around. Think musical chairs plus famine and strife.

    Warmer temperatures decrease soil moisture, leading to reduced crop yields, famine, and strife.

    Warmer oceans lead to a more chaotic pattern of tropical cyclones, of which the current impotent Atlantic season and the uber-destructive West Pacific seasons are but one example. Hurricanes in December and a longer fall tornado season are a possible consequence of the abnormally warm waters in the Gulf (of Mexico) and a wildly divergent jet stream.

    Small sea level rise displaces millions of people due to increased vulnerability during storm events, leading to displaced persons, famine, and strife.

    This next is the consequence of most concern.

    Slightly warmer oceans warm the bottom of ice shelves (floating) enough so that they break up with little warning. Ice shelves buttress ground, marine ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which respond in ways not well understood, but understood well enough to know that the response to warmer oceans is non-linear. This means there is little or no change until the time comes when there is rapid and catastrophic change, leading to displaced person, famine, strife, warfare, and new forms of civilization.

    [1] Dear Leader is the current figurehead of the administration, complete with minions, toadies and sycophants. Loyal Opposition is the visible opposition to DL, thus allowing us to remain secure in the belief our government is functioning. It is important to believe that hidden forces such as big money or extra-national interests do not exist.

  3. Indeed. Geography and climate directly impact history. After all, it is said that any civilization is merely six meals away from anarchy.

  4. (Hint: a 4 degrees C. increase might well make the climate unstable and endanger human survival).

    I think the concern is that if anthropomorphic climate change causes a 4dC rise, it will happen so suddenly that ecosystems will collapse.

    • “I think the concern is that if anthropomorphic climate change causes a 4dC rise, it will happen so suddenly that ecosystems will collapse.”

      Anthropomorphic climate change??? Are you suggesting that climate change can have human form, attributes, or characteristics? After all, “anthropomorphic” means having human form, attributes, or characteristics, such as some pets that begin to look like their owners.

      I think you meant something like “man-caused,” or “human-induced” climate change, but surely not anthropomorphic.

  5. Shakespeare addressed this phenomenon in the play, Midsummer Night’s Dream, ca 1600 CE. Oberon and Titania are fighting over the changeling child. These brawls disturb the sport of mankind. Hoary headed frosts fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose. On Hiem’s thin and icy crown, an odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds is, as in mockery, set. He concludes that this progeny of evils comes from this domestic violence. Sometimes the literal word cannot explain; “cause and effect” is insufficient.

  6. One of the complaints of skeptics is that we have cooler spells lately, or the flatter decade (debatable) but for sake of argument even if true: makes no more sense to consider that counting against influence of CO2, than to doubt the effect of Earth axial tilt because of cooler spell in late April than a few weeks earlier.

  7. I am skeptical, but not dismissive, of the potential for climate change to cause increasing conflict around the world. For one thing, the change will benefit certain areas. But I would like to refer back to one of Mr. Cole’s previous articles about mechanization and a sort of new socialism. The trend of mechanization he described could have a very positive end, but it would happen gradually, entailing a century of unusual unemployment and strife, as I see it. And this has probably already begun. But if this conjecture about climate change is correct, the combination of the loss of jobs to mechanization and increases in food prices due to climate change would be a strong inducement to greater conflict.

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