A coming Ice Age?

(Photo by Christopher Michel)

(Photo by Christopher Michel)

You’ve seen the headlines: Researchers just developed a new mathematical model that purportedly predicts the Sun’s future behavior. They conclude that the strange solar activity of the past 17 years will continue and even deepen. As a result, they say, we’re entering a “Maunder Minimum”: a prolonged period of reduced sunspot activity that will produce a global cooling in the decades ahead.

But hold on. Not so fast. Some solar experts disagree. Indeed, scientists don’t even agree about what’s really unfolding with climate change. The most sophisticated satellites show a 17-year-long flatness in global air temperatures: no warming since 1998. Indeed, in 2013, The New York Times said, “The global warming crowd has a problem. For all of its warnings, and despite a steady escalation of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere, the planet’s average surface temperature has remained pretty much the same for the last 15 years.”

Nobody knows why. It defies all the sharply upward computer models. A few months ago, a research team found a way to make that flatness turn into a temperature rise by using shipboard measurements that had been considered unreliable. But many aren’t buying that sudden revision.

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So is it the Sun? Or is something else at play?

Superimposed on that, the eastern United States has been gripped by a cooling trend. We all remember the last two winters as being unusually cold. But the summers too have been chilly. Last week, the National Weather Service in Albany reported:

 

“We have not hit 90 degrees at any of our climate locations this year. Here are the dates of the last 90+-degree day:

Albany, NY: July 23, 2014

Glens Falls, NY: July 23, 2014

Poughkeepsie, NY: September 6, 2014

Bennington, VT: September 11, 2013

Pittsfield, MA: September 11, 2013.”

 

Yet even that means little. The only certainty is that carbon dioxide levels have increased from 280 parts per million to 400 in the last century-and-a-half. At the same time, global temperatures have risen about one-and-a-half degrees Fahrenheit. The increase has been irregular. Temperatures went down from 1880 to 1910, then up until around 1940, then stayed level or slightly declined for nearly 40 years. Then in the late ’70s they went up for 20 years, until 1998, and seem to have been level or nearly so for the past 17 or 18 years. No model can explain this. Obviously, something else is going on that we haven’t yet grasped.

Prudence would dictate that we not mess with our Mother Earth, and that we decrease our use of carbon fuels. Happily, we’ve started to do that – at least in Europe, the US and Canada. Coal is the worst emitter, and it has gone from supplying half our electrical generation a decade ago to 40 percent now. Natural gas helps. Nuclear would be too costly and people are afraid of it. Solar is booming, and this could make a big change.

What lies in store can be anything from a minor global effect to which we can adapt to a far more worrisome climate change. The Sun may help us out, or it may not. Currently we don’t adequately know how our planet is reacting to the ever-rising CO2, which now constitutes 1/25th of one percent of our air. That the sea is warming is confirmed by measurable sea-level rises, which average one-and-a-half inches per decade. This is mostly due to the simple fact that heated water expands.

Maybe we should be a bit skeptical of doomsday predictions, given the unrelenting media fascination with them. Thus we could regard the current “Mini-Ice Age” scare as merely the Armageddon du jour. It’s actually a recycled fear, since global cooling was a mainstream concern in the 1970s.

Scientists who say “I don’t know” get very little press, while worrisome predictions create headlines. It’s not just New Age scares like 2012’s Maya Calendar Armageddon that get widespread attention; science creates plenty of its own frightening forecasts. Earth’s citizens were predicted to endure famine in the 1980s, run out of oil in the 1990s, use up vital metals like copper by the 1990s and have computers wreak worldwide havoc in 2000, à la Y2K. Healthwise, a new predicted pandemic obsesses the media every two to three years. Just a few months ago, CNN’s top story was “Are we ready for the next global epidemic?” Last fall it was the Ebola virus, when the Washington Post headlined “How Ebola Sped out of Control.” Now, a mere eight months later, Ebola worries have largely evaporated.

The same thing happened with bird flu, swine flu, mad cow, SARS, West Nile virus and all the rest. With swine flu, a rushed-to-market vaccine killed far more people than the disease itself.

This isn’t to say that there couldn’t be a sudden outbreak, like the way polio killed thousands in the 1950s; just that we’ve become jumpy and susceptible to handwringing. Is climate change merely the latest doomsday scare, whose effects may prove far less malignant than is commonly feared?

Maybe. Still, prudence demands that we phase out carbon, no matter what. The issue is cost. Should everyone pay a carbon tax if they drive a gas-powered car – even if it takes $1,000 out of their pockets annually? For those already struggling financially, what constitutes too much sacrifice? Whose cost/benefit ratio should be trusted? Should a community like Woodstock consider itself carbon-neutral if it has enough trees to absorb every resident’s carbon output?

Lots of questions; few easy answers.

 

Postscript: On Sunday and Monday afternoons, the National Weather Service Poughkeepsie station finally hit 90 degrees. (96 on Sunday and 92 on Monday), but our region’s other four stations have yet to hit 90.

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