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Coming to Grips With the Sun

August 1, 2014

It’s not well understood how the Sun affects the Earth.

We count the number of sun spots, measure the sun’s irradiance and the size of solar storms.

We do know that the size of solar storms has been linked to auroras and damage to electrical systems.

The largest known geomagnetic storm occurred in1859. Known as the Carrington Event, the storm was nearly three times as intense as the most recent severe geomagnetic storm.

The Carrington storm took 17 hours, 40 minutes to reach the Earth, and it produced auroras seen around the world. It also damaged telegraph stations in the United States and England.

A geomagnetic storm in 1989 caused the grid in Quebec, Canada to fail.

There is also a high degree of certainty that the number of sun spots affects the climate, though the exact mechanism is still a matter of scientific study.

There was a period, known as the Maunder Minimum, when there were virtually no sun spots. For over a hundred years temperatures on Earth were very low, resulting in the Little Ice Age.

Sun Spot chart from NASA

Sun Spot chart from NASA

 

Sun spots occur in an eleven-year cycle, and the most recent cycle, #24, has been the weakest of the recent past.

There’s been considerable speculation about the next sun spot cycle. Will Cycle 25 have even fewer sunspots? And does this indicate a new minimum that may affect the Earth’s climate?

Chart of sun spot cycle 24 from NASA

Chart of sun spot cycle 24 from NASA

On July 18, the LA Times headline read, “Suddenly, the sun is eerily quiet: Where did the sunspots go?”

The Times was not alone.

The Daily Mail, “Why has the sun gone quiet? Scientists baffled as sun spots disappear during peak period of solar activity.”

And the Register, “The Sun took a day off last week and made NO SUNSPOTS.”

While these headlines have no real scientific meaning, they highlight that there is much we don’t know about the sun.

Headlines about our weather, such as the Polar Vortex, also have no scientific meaning, but highlight there is much we don’t know about the climate.

Herschel’s linking the price of wheat to the sun, the Carrington Event and other interesting events of modern history, are vividly described in the book: The Sun Kings,The Unexpected Tragedy of Richard Carrington & the Tale of How Modern Astronomy Began, by Stuart Clark.

Book Cover, The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark

Book Cover, The Sun Kings by Stuart Clark

How the sun affects the Earth is an important question.

A Carrington Event could, for example, shut down the grid in North America for months, and possibly for over a year. People living in cities, such as New York and Chicago, as well as the other 200 million people living across the northern United States and southern Canada would be without electricity. Could our society survive?

And would another solar minimum cause another Little Ice Age? Is the sun the real source of climate change?

Svensmark, a Danish scientist, has developed an hypothesis that explains how solar storms could affect the Earth’s climate.

Most people see the sun without really seeing it, and take it for granted.

Isn’t it time to take the sun more seriously?

* * * * * *

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Neil Jones permalink
    August 1, 2014 1:20 pm

    Another thought provoking message.

  2. donb permalink
    August 1, 2014 3:22 pm

    Donn, nice summary.
    Two other subtle ways the Sun can influence climate:
    1) Most solar energy received by Earth is visible light. But solar UV (ultra-violet) interacts with oxygen in the high atmosphere, depositing energy and maintaining the ozone layer. The ratio of UV to visible light can and does change, thus affecting the amount and location of solar energy deposition on Earth. This affects climate.
    2) Times of high sunspot number and high solar activity produce stronger magnetic fields throughout the solar system and tend to exclude galactic cosmic ray (GCR) particles. At times of low solar activity, the flux of these GCR particles in the atmosphere is greater. Possibly, even likely, these charged particles produce ionized nuclei for water drops to form around, and thus produce more clouds. As clouds are more reflective of solar energy, this also affects climate.

    • August 2, 2014 8:34 am

      Thanks. This is at the core of Svensmark’s hypothesis.
      It’s interesting to note that the supercollider in France (CERN) has demonstrated that cosmic rays can form clouds. There is, therefore, more substantial support for his hypothesis than for the CO2 hypothesis.

  3. August 1, 2014 4:21 pm

    Donn,

    Imparcially, very persuasive, informative, valuable, and clear. I enjoyed it. Frankly speaking, I occasionally do not think the same as you do but this time I feel I’ve got you and I am with you, thanks. Regards, S.

  4. Catcracking permalink
    August 1, 2014 6:47 pm

    Donn,
    Thanks for your clear presentation of the risk of a Carrington event. Although I have read about this before, your explanation is the best that I have read.

    BTW, wattsupwiththat.com has a recent post that you might consider weighing in on and linking your article.
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/08/01/a-bigger-worry-than-global-warming-and-more-damaging-a-carrington-class-solar-event/

    Don

    • August 2, 2014 8:36 am

      Thanks. I’ll probably link to Watts up with That.

Trackbacks

  1. Coming to Grips With the Sun | Gaia Gazette
  2. Weekly Climate and Energy News Roundup | Watts Up With That?

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