“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice….” – Robert Frost
Some Say Fire and Some Say Ice
Recently, several eminent scientists, such as Michael Mann, reported that human activity has indisputably put us on a trajectory toward a hothouse earth. Scientific consensus has stated unequivocally that we have been warming dangerously for over a decade due to anthropogenic causes. James Hansen (video) first testified before Congress in 1988 to begin to make us aware of this. Still, this well-established science has not been able to quell the denial, speculation and distraction tactics of those with wildly opposing arguments and ulterior motives.
Factors in Glaciation
Established science explains the complex relationship between the geometry of where the sunlight hits the earth and the formation of climate. It is well-known that Milankovitch Cycles govern eccentricity, obliquity, and precession which produce seasons and impact glaciation. Paleoclimatology confirms this over time.
To put this into very simple terms, there is a 100,000 year eccentricity cycle (among others) and within that there are alternating 10,000 or so year periods of glacial and interglacial phases. These are natural planetary patterns recognized by renowned scientists. For those who want to truly begin to understand this physics in depth the PBS Space Time program titled “Is an Ice Age Coming” (video) covers this theory in a fun and informative lecture with host Matthew John O’Dowd, an Australian-born astrophysicist.
We are currently enjoying an interglacial phase within the current ice age known as the Quaternary. This has lead to the the conditions that have allowed our civilization to flourish for at least 11,650 years of the Holocene Epoch and finally to transgress planetary boundaries as we now enter the Anthropocene, or quite possibly the Plutocene.
We are now experiencing the hottest years on record year after year. Additionally, due to rapid warming we are witnessing the melting of the polar ice sheets which may also impact obliquity, and not in a good way. No matter how you look at it, the planet is not cooling. In fact, the real question is actually have we ended the entire Quaternary ice age due to global warming, damage to the chemistry of our atmosphere, and anthropogenic climate forcing, otherwise known as human caused climate change? German theoretical physicist and founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Hans J. Schellnhuber (video) now says “yes, we have suppressed the entire Quaternary dynamic.” H.J. Schellenhuber, using geophysics and exponential equations he calls simple, calculates how human activity in the Anthropocene has even thrown off the next ice age.
“The will be no ice age again. The human impact is so powerful already, … that we have suppressed the Quaternary planetary dynamics.” – H.J. Schellenhuber
Seeing Sun Spots
Further rhetoric produced in this stubborn myth of imminent global cooling (video) is that we will soon experience a grand solar minimum (GSM). We know that fluctuations in solar activity are not new. The 11-year variation in the number of dark sunspots on the solar surface was discovered more than 150 years ago. Indeed solar activity expresses itself in cycles of increased and then decreased activity as well, but the effect on temperature is actually very small.
“The total solar irradiance, a measure of the power produced by the sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation, varies by only about 0.1% over the course of the 11-year solar cycle. Climate scientists have understood this effect for some time and it is already built into the computer models that are used to try and forecast our climate.” – IFL
So, exactly how is this astronomy related to an impending ice age? One of the initial adoptions of this myth was during the period of low solar activity in the 17th century, known as the Maunder minimum, lasted about 70 years and coincided with the Little Ice Age (LIA), an era characterized by harsh winters in the UK and Europe. Given the apparent link between low solar activity and the exaggerated reports of the Little Ice Age at this time, it became very popular to tell this tale. it’s understandable that the prospect of a return to Maunder minimum conditions has stimulated interest and raised concerns time and again.
This story arose again during the subsequent Dalton minimum, and others. It is clear that the hysterical response to the fear of a great glaciation due to changes in the sun’s activity, or any significant cool phase, is pretty typical. It turns out that the event that most severely shaped the cold phenomena during the Dalton minimum was actually not the sun at all, but the catastrophic eruption of a volcano in what is now Indonesia. The ash clouds spewed by this volcano were widespread, chilling the climate of the Northern Hemisphere by blocking sunlight with it’s gaseous releases; proving that jumping to hasty conclusions is never a good idea.
In short, we may well be heading towards a period of low solar activity, but a resulting mini ice age is not only an unlikely scenario, but a dubious conclusion.
“Those hoping that the sun could save us from climate change look set for disappointment. The recent lapse in solar activity is not the beginning of a decades-long absence of sunspots – a dip that might have cooled the climate. Instead, it represents a shorter, less pronounced downturn that happens every century or so.” – Climate Change Guide
The overwhelming consensus among the world’s climate scientists is that the influence of solar variability on the climate is completely dwarfed by the impact of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Calculations suggest that a grand solar minimum might produce cooling effects that would, at best, only temporarily offset a few years of warming due to the emission levels which are now higher than they have been in over 800,000 years and have completely exceeded the carbon budget some estimates say as far back as 1987. Peer-reviewed research, physics, and math all tell us that a grand solar minimum would have no more than a 0.3°C cooling effect, barely enough to put a dent in human-caused global warming.
Origins of the Ice Age Myth
The Daily Mail, Sky News, and the Telegraph were among the first to rerun the modern versions of this story in 2005, but it also had antecedents in the popular press as far back as the 1970’s such as shown in this In Search Of (video) episode with Leonard Nimoy. The climate cooling hysteria of the 1970’s is well known.
Essentially this eternally recurring mythology is the result of the spin of tabloid media (video). While this kind of confusion and hype can be easy to get caught up in, we have to use strong discretion as well as critical thinking skills to ensure that we don’t fall prey to this kind of confusion. At the point at which urban legend generated from tabloid sources becomes conflated with objective science we should be seeing the error of our ways.
However, this myth continues to remain a detractor for educators, scientists, politicians, and humanity as it persists in the media today as a way for climate deniers to rationalize global cooling rather than accept global warming. It is all too easily spurring inaction, dissent, controversy, and doubt. Further, it is doing an extreme disservice to much needed and yet sadly neglected societal consensus building regarding what we are actually facing in the coming extinction
As a society and certainly in our economics and politics, we are failing to honor this science miserably in our inability to come to terms with what we now face in the looming sixth mass extinction. This kind of gaming of science is wreaking havoc on our crucial awareness of these issues which is only increasing the threat of impending disaster.
While there will always be some room for speculation and potential black swan events, (i.e. rare, unexpected and inexplicable phenomena caused by multiple unforeseen factors ) it is certain that we are not headed for an ice age. Rather, because of the runaway greenhouse gas emissions and irreversible anthropogenic forcing on the climate system, the chemistry of our atmosphere is altered in a way that is increasingly proving likely to throw off the Milankovitch Cycles and disrupt the next glacial cycle altogether.
It’s time to put the myth of the little ice age to rest once and for all. Those using this myth to deny climate change are not only damaging the objectivity of science itself, they are damning action toward a finer future. Promoting make-believe science like the ice age myth is a true and present danger (video) to continued life on this planet. Everyone must now arm themselves with education and objective science, and finally, take action.