Cheer up, we’re not heading into 'mini ice age' just yet

© NASA / Michael Studinger / Handout
Scientists created a buzz last week saying our planet is just 15 years from a new ‘mini ice age’ that could cause awfully cold winters with rivers like Thames freezing over. Don't worry, there's no need to stock up on mittens, as winter is not coming.

British astrophysicists, who predicted our sun’s activity will fall 60 percent in the 2030s, said they based their findings on new research that, they claim, allows the exact predictions of solar cycles.

The research team, headed by a professor of mathematics at Northumbria University in Newcastle, Valentina Zharkova, analyzed three solar activity cycles that cover a period from 1976 to 2008. The researchers studied the magnetic field activity of the sun during this time by using a technique  –  “principal component analysis”– of the magnetic field observations from the Wilcox Solar Observatory in California.

The thing is, the British scientists were analyzing the sun’s 11-year cycles from a purely astronomical perspective. The press release, which spread like wildfire causing a stir in the media, actually said nothing about the effects, which a solar cycle would have on conditions on Earth. The scientists however, exclusively focused on the potential consequences for the sun. Only experts could see the mistake, while the vast majority of the public started to get ready for doomsday.

Montage of images of solar activity between August 1991 and September 2001.

“A decrease in solar output of 1 percent would be a very big deal for the climate system. A 60 percent decrease would end all life on Earth, forever probably,” James Renwick, a professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and an expert in atmospheric physics, told Newsweek. According to Renwick, professor Zharkova only meant that the amplitude of the solar cycle may decline by 60 percent during that period.

“I am kind of surprised no one has commented on this yet or pointed out how unlikely it is,” he added.

He explained that during an 11-year period in the 2030s, the two magnetic waves that produce sunspots are expected to interact to a point where they will almost cancel each other out, causing a 60 percent drop in the difference between peak and height solar activity, as compared with the previous cycle. This interaction would equal a decrease in solar output of roughly 0.1 percent, Renwick told the publication. A 0.1 percent drop in solar output is nothing to worry about for our planet.

“If things played out as described in Zharkova's paper, and we did see a decrease in solar output roughly as happened in the 1700s, there would be some cooling for 20 or 30 years,” Renwick said.

“But the levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are so much higher now that temperatures would not drop much below where they are today.

And that drop would last only until 2050 or so. Then we'd have a bounce upwards again,” he reassured.