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A Cooler Sun Won't Stop Climate Change

Those headlines are misleading you. Scientists think the sun may go through a dormant period, but that won't stop the rise in global temperatures.

There are those in this country that would like nothing more than to be able to stick their fingers in their ears, hum a little tune, and hope that climate change will go away. We’re all guilty of it sometimes, particularly in the summer, when that blast of 55-degree climate-controlled air hits our skin. It’s tempting to glom on to any hint that we’re not going to have to deal with this problem, because solving it is going to be hard and expensive and involve sacrifices bigger than turning the air conditioner up to 78 degrees.

Earlier this week, at a conference in New Mexico, a series of scientists opened up the possibility that climate change would conveniently disappear, at least for awhile. These scientists study the sun and its cycles, and three different reports presented at the conference argued that the sun is on the verge of a relatively dormant cycle, in which it will give off less energy and consequently create less heat on the Earht's surface.

One study had looked at wind flow on the sun, which is connected to the formation of sun spots. More sunspots mean more solar activity and more bursts of energy soaking the Earth. But the scientists predicted that for a decade, maybe more, the sun would have fewer sunspots, which would indicate less solar activity and, consequently, less solar energy reaching this planet. The last time sunspots dropped off precipitously, their numbers stayed low for 70 years. That period, between 1645 and 1715, was colder than normal — so cold that it’s known as the Little Ice Age.

Don’t be surprised if word starts trickling around that we can all relax about climate change now. This story was first reported as “Sunspots to Disappear; Global Cooling May Ensure” (TIME) and “Global Warming Be Damned, We Might Be Headed for a Mini Ice Age” (Fox News). But that’s not quite how it’s going to work.

Not all scientists are certain that the sun will be less active. The studies arguing for fewer sunspots are making predictions. In 2006, the going theory was that there’d be a sunspot peak in 2012, fueling all sorts of doomsday predictions. In 2009, NASA thought the peak would be in 2013. This new set of research wonders whether the sun might skip the peak altogether. Other scientists have looked at the same trends, though, and draw different conclusions.

But even if the sun does go into a dormant period and even if it does cool the planet, we still don’t get a break on climate change. Yes, the planet cooled when solar activity dropped off in the 17th century. But that cooling isn’t attributable to the sun’s changeable moods alone: During the same period, increased but unrelated volcanic activity sent ash clouds into the atmosphere, which blocked out the sun’s energy.

Decreased solar activity did have some effect and would this time around, too. Any cooling would likely measure less than half of one degree Fahrenheit, however. Climate change campaigners are pushing with all they’ve got to keep the increase in average global temperatures under two degrees Fahrenheit; right now, scientists are predicting temperatures will climb three, five, even seven degrees by 2100. A cooler sun wouldn’t be unwelcome in these scenarios, but its impact would be minor.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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