News about an imminent ‘mini-ice age’ is trending, but it’s not true

“Scientists warn the sun will ‘go to sleep’ in 2030 and could cause temperatures to plummet,” blared one headline from this weekend.

“Earth heading for ‘mini ice age’ within 15 years,” warned another.

By Sunday evening, news that the Earth could be headed for period of bitter cold was trending on Facebook and whizzing across Twitter. The story – which has been reported everywhere from conservative blogs to the British press to the Weather Channel to the Huffington Post – was based on a recent presentation at the Royal Astronomical Society’s national meeting. Researchers studying sunspots found that solar activity is due to decline dramatically in the next few decades, reaching levels not seen since the 17th century, during a period known as the Maunder minimum. Back then, the decline coincided with what’s called the “Little Ice Age,” when Europe’s winters turned brutally cold, crops failed and rivers froze over.

Could another one be on its way?

Not quite.

Though University of Northumbria mathematics professor Valentina Zharkova, who led the sunspot research, did find that the magnetic waves that produce sunspots (which are associated with high levels of solar activity) are expected to counteract one another in an unusual way in the coming years, the press release about her research mentions nothing about how that will affect the Earth’s climate. Zharkova never even used the phrase “mini ice age.” Meanwhile, several other recent studies of a possible solar minimum have concluded that whatever climate effects the phenomenon may have will be dwarfed by the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Besides, that “Little Ice Age” that occurred during the Maunder minimum, it wasn’t so much a global ice age as a cold spell in Europe, and it may have been caused more by clouds of ash from volcanic eruptions than by fluctuations in solar activity.

(It’s also worth mentioning that Zharkova’s findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so her conclusions haven’t been vetted and refined.)

But those nuances were totally lost as stories about Zharkova’s research made the rounds on social media and in the press. Instead, we got 300-year-old engravings of Londoners cavorting on the frozen River Thames accompanied by predictions of food shortages and brutal cold – plus snarky tweets about not worrying about global warming anymore.

This isn’t the first time that a story about sunspots has turned into a story about climate change skepticism. John Casey, president of the Orlando-based Space and Science Research Corporation, which denies that global temperatures are rising, has written two books on the threat of impending “solar hibernation.” In 2011, when a series of studies concluded that the sun was heading into a cycle of unusually low activity, one headline cheered “Global Warming Be Damned, We Might Be Headed for a Mini Ice Age.”

For decades, scientists have known that solar activity fluctuates according to a roughly 11-year cycle. Sunspots – (relatively) cool, dark blotches on the sun’s surface – indicate areas of intense magnetic activity. But recently sunspots have been weakening, as has the sun’s magnetic field, leading scientists to conclude that the sun is heading into an especially quiet cycle termed the “grand solar minimum”

The new research from Zharkova argues that the solar cycles are regulated by not one but two magnetic waves fluctuating at slightly different frequencies, and that the unusually low activity can be explained by the waves getting far enough out of sync that they effectively cancel one another out.

Even if the upcoming decline in solar activity turns out to be as Zharkova’s suggests, scientists who study the sun say we can’t be sure how it will affect Earth’s climate.

“We have some interesting hints that solar activity is associated with climate, but we don’t understand the association,” Dean Pesnell, a NASA scientist who worked on one of the 2011 studies about the grand minimum, told National Geographic at the time.

Those studies that have found a correlation between solar activity and global temperatures predict that the drop in temperatures associated with a grand minimum will be much smaller than the warming that’s predicted to occur due to greenhouse gas emissions: A 2010 study in the journal Geophysical Letters predicted it could cause a global temperature decrease of about 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2100 – not nearly enough to offset the 1 to 5 degree increase anticipated from human-caused global warming.

As for that image of Londoners frolicking at “frost fairs” on the frozen-over Thames? Those had less to do with the activity of the sun than the activities of humans. Historical climatologist George Adamson told the BBC last year that the river used to freeze because of the architecture of the old London Bridge, whose arches prevented salty sea water from passing upriver and lowering its freezing point. The construction of a new bridge in the 19th century, and other landscape changes that made the river flow faster, brought an end to those festivals – less so than the end of the Maunder minimum.

“I’d be surprised if it froze again to the extent where we’d be able to allow large numbers of people on the Thames,” he said.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Snohomish residents Barbara Bailey, right, and Beth Jarvis sit on a gate atop a levee on Bailey’s property on Monday, May 13, 2024, at Bailey Farm in Snohomish, Washington. Bailey is concerned the expansion of nearby Harvey Field Airport will lead to levee failures during future flood events due to a reduction of space for floodwater to safely go. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Harvey Field seeks to reroute runway in floodplain, faces new pushback

Snohomish farmers and neighbors worry the project will be disruptive and worsen flooding. Ownership advised people to “read the science.”

IAM District 751 machinists join the picket line to support Boeing firefighters during their lockout from the company on Thursday, May 16, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Amid lockout, Boeing, union firefighters return to bargaining table

The firefighters and the planemaker held limited negotiations this week: They plan to meet again Monday, but a lockout continues.

Bothell
2 injured in Bothell Everett Highway crash

The highway was briefly reduced to one northbound lane while police investigated the three-car crash Saturday afternoon.

Heavy traffic northbound on 1-5 in Everett, Washington on August 31, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
On I-5 in Everett, traffic nightmare is reminder we’re ‘very vulnerable’

After a police shooting shut down the freeway, commutes turned into all-night affairs. It was just a hint of what could be in a widespread disaster.

Anthony Brock performs at Artisans PNW during the first day of the Fisherman’s Village Music Fest on Thursday, May 16, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
At downtown Everett musical festival: ‘Be weird and dance with us’

In its first night, Fisherman’s Village brought together people who “might not normally be in the same room together” — with big acts still to come.

Two troopers place a photo of slain Washington State Patrol trooper Chris Gadd outside District 7 Headquarters about twelve hours after Gadd was struck and killed on southbound I-5 about a mile from the headquarters on Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Marysville, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Judge reduces bail for driver accused of killing Marysville trooper

After hearing from Raul Benitez Santana’s family, a judge decreased bail to $100,000. A deputy prosecutor said he was “very disappointed.”

Pet detective Jim Branson stops to poke through some fur that Raphael the dog found while searching on Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Everett, Washington. Branson determined the fur in question was likely from a rabbit, and not a missing cat.(Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Lost a pet? Pet detective James Branson and his dogs may be able to help

James Branson, founder of Three Retrievers Lost Pet Rescue, helps people in the Seattle area find their missing pets for $350.

Whidbey Renaissance Faire volunteers pose in their costumes. (Photo by Bree Eaton)
Faire thee well: Renaissance is coming to Whidbey Island

The volunteer-run fair May 25 and 26 will feature dancers, a juggler, ‘Fakespeare,’ various live music shows and lots of food.

Community Transit leaders, from left, Chief Communications Officer Geoff Patrick, Zero-Emissions Program Manager Jay Heim, PIO Monica Spain, Director of Maintenance Mike Swehla and CEO Ric Ilgenfritz stand in front of Community Transit’s hydrogen-powered bus on Monday, May 13, 2024, at the Community Transit Operations Base in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New hydrogen, electric buses get trial run in Snohomish County

As part of a zero-emission pilot program from Community Transit, the hydrogen bus will be the first in the Puget Sound area.

Two people fight on the side of I-5 neat Marysville. (Photo provided by WSDOT)
Video: Man charged at trooper, shouting ‘Who’s the boss?’ before shooting

The deadly shooting shut down northbound I-5 near Everett for hours. Neither the trooper nor the deceased had been identified as of Friday.

Two people fight on the side of I-5 neat Marysville. (Photo provided by WSDOT)
Road rage, fatal police shooting along I-5 blocks traffic near Everett

An attack on road workers preceded a report of shots fired Thursday, snarling freeway traffic in the region for hours.

The Port of Everett and Everett Marina on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Is Port of Everett’s proposed expansion a ‘stealth tax?’ Judge says no

A Snohomish resident lost a battle in court this week protesting what he believes is a misleading measure from the Port of Everett.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.