- By Khin Maung Myint
While the world is currently faced with the threats of the global warming, extreme hot weathers, and extensive melting of the glaciers, the coming of a “mini ice age” that is expected to take place in over a decade or so from now may sound baffling. That idea is hard to believe for a layperson like me. However, curiosity made me do an ad hoc research, though not thorough, but just enough to learn more about that prediction. In fact it was to surf the Internet for informations, which are readily and abundantly available there.
I would like to write briefly about the mini ice ages that our planet had been subjected to in the past. As this is not a scientific paper, I will keep it as simple as I can by not going into technical details. It was back in the sixth century and lasted 125 years. In AD 536, the first of three massive volcanic eruptions ushered in a mini ice age that affected Europe and Central Asia and lasted till AD 660.
Only very recently, the scientists came to the conclusion that one of the key events that led to it was the massive eruptions of volcanoes somewhere in the southern hemisphere. The scientists were able to identify three significant volcanic eruptions in the years 536, 540 and 547 from their studies. Such huge volcanic eruptions fling so much ash and debris into the atmosphere that sunlight is partially blocked out, which can cool the earth to the point of freezing up rivers, creeks, streams, lakes, ponds and even seas and oceans.
Solar activity and the “mini ice age”
The Sun may be 93 million miles away, but activities there have consequences on Earth. That is why scientists are keen to study the changes in the Sun’s activity. The Sun’s activity varies on an 11-year cycle, typically taking about five and a half years to move from the quieter period of solar minimum, to the more turbulent solar maximum.
Solar minimum is a period of least solar activity of the Sun. During such times, sunspot and solar flare activities diminish, and often do not occur for days at a time. Solar minimum is not generally correlated with changes in climate, but recent studies have shown a correlation with regional weather patterns. Here, it should be noted that it is not the weather causing the solar minima, but the other way round.
Solar minimum and maximum are the two extremes of the Sun. At a solar maximum the Sun is covered with sunspots, solar flares erupt, and the Sun hurls billion-ton clouds of electrified gas into space. Sky watchers may see more auroras, and space agencies must monitor radiation storms for astronaut protection. Power outages, satellite malfunctions, communication disruptions, and GPS receiver malfunctions are just a few of the things that can happen during a solar maximum. Where as, a solar minimum has fewer sunspots and solar flares subside. It is characterized by a period of decreased solar activity with few or no sunspots. Sometimes, days or weeks go by without a spot. The two phenomena contradict one another.
During 2008–09, NASA scientists noted that the Sun is undergoing a “deep solar minimum”. It was said that there were no sunspots observed on 266 of 366 days, which was 73% of that period. Prompted by these numbers, some observers suggested that the solar cycle had hit bottom in 2008. Sunspot counts for 2009 dropped even lower. As of 14 September 2009, there were no sunspots on 206 of the year’s 257 days (80%). That was the quietest sun in a century. These observations by solar physicists confirmed that we are experiencing a very deep solar minimum.
The last mini ice age known as the “Little Ice Age” occurred between 1300 and 1870 and caused temperatures in northern Europe and North America to fall dramatically. Sometime during that period rivers, streams, lakes and ponds froze, the sea ice extended far out from the coastlines during the winters. The prolonged cold weather (1645-1715), known as the “Maunder Minimum”, where a reduction in the number of sunspots, or in other words a diminished solar activity, was identified as the cause by the solar scientists.
According to them, another “Maunder Minimum” could hit Earth again in the 2030s, the first such event to occur since the early 1700s. New experiments on the Sun’s solar cycle carried out at Northumbria University suggest solar activity will see a “significant” drop, causing temperatures on Earth to plummet. Such periods were thought to be driven by convecting waves of fluids deep within the Sun. But new research suggests a second force, or “wave”, is also causing them. Two waves, operating at different layers in the Sun’s interior, are now believed to drive the solar activity.
When these waves are desynchronized, temperatures on Earth will fall. Both waves fluctuate between the northern and southern hemispheres of the Sun. When the waves stay in phase we see high levels of solar activity such as sunspots, and when out of phase we see low activity. Such events are in no way linked to climate change, with fluctuations in solar activity having a far smaller impact than global warming. Thus it can be assumed that Maunder Minimum is not caused by the climate change.
Possibility of another “mini ice age”
If the scientists’ prediction should prove to be true it would mean a return to freezing temperatures last seen 370 years ago. During that period the River Thames froze to such an extent that regular “frost fairs” were held during the winter, with market stalls and ice skating a common sight on the river. During the winter of 1683-84 the river was frozen solid for two months to a thickness of 28cm, according to historical records. Solid ice was also reported extending for miles off the coasts around England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
According to a media report in 2015, solar scientists predicted that the earth is heading for another mini ice age within 15 years. Research has predicted a new solar “Maunder Minimum” to take place in the 2030s. Solar researchers at the University of Northumbria have created a new model of the sun’s activity which they claim produces “unprecedentedly accurate predictions”. They said fluid movements within the sun will converge in the 2030s. Thus, the earth is 15 only years from a period of low solar activity similar to that last seen in the 17th century during the “Little Ice Age”, when the River Thames froze
Solar scientists are adamant that this will lead to a situation known as “Maunder Minimum”. Maunder Minimum, indicating low sunspot activity, was the name given to the period between 1645 and 1715, when Europe and North America experienced very cold winters. This phenomenon is also known as the “prolonged sunspot minimum”, when sunspots became exceedingly rare, as was noted by solar observers during the last mini ice age. The term “Maunder Minimum” was named after the prominent solar astronomers Annie Russell Maunder (1868–1947) and her husband, Edward Walter Maunder (1851–1928).
Having mentioned that, I would like to analyze the situation as conclusion to this article. Some may think that, with the cold spells about to be brought on by the looming ‘Maunder Minimum”, there would be some sort of relief from the ravages of the climate change we are facing now. From the past experiences of the “Little Ice Age” that hit Europe and North America, that wouldn’t be the case.
In the higher latitudes, there would be a big freeze up. That would affect seriously on the agriculture and the pastures and grazing grounds for the animals would be under ice or thick layers of snow. The wildlife and the domestic animals could starve to death. There would be shortage of foods and famine among humans that could be widespread. Such conditions would impact the populace in those places directly. As for us, in the Tropics, we may find some solace from the cooler weather conditions, which would be a great relief from the scorching heat.
However, I am a bit sceptical that would be the case either. If nearly half the Earth is freezing, the weather patterns would become erratic and nothing could be predicted correctly in the normal way. Anything can happen to us, but as a lay person, I cannot say what or how. So, let us be prepared for the worst and hope for the best.
1. Solar minimum – Wikipedia
2. Little Ice Age – Wikipedia