Winter is coming: Scientists predict “little ice age” in 15-25 years time

Solar activity predicted to drop by 60%, leading to cold winters not seen since 1645-1715

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Between the years 1645 and 1715, there was a period of bitterly cold winters in the northern hemisphere. The winters were so cold that the Thames completely froze.

This was caused by low solar activity, known as the Maunder Minimum, and when it will happen again has been a source of debate among scientists. Well, according to a new model that promises 97% accuracy, we’re due another “little ice age” in 15 to 25 years time.

"The winters were so cold that the Thames completely froze."

The prediction is the work of mathematics professor Valentina Zharkova from Northumbria University, examining the sun’s so-called “11-year heartbeat”. This is the period at which the sun’s activity remains steady before fluctuating every 10-12 years.

Zharkova’s new model forecasts solar cycles based on two layers of moving fluid within the sun, one near the surface and another in the convection zone. By using this model, Zharkova’s team found their predictions “showed an accuracy of 97%”.

They predict that in cycle 26 – which runs from 2030 to 2040 – things could get very cold indeed. “In cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other – peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the sun. Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a ‘Maunder Minimum’,” said Zharkova.

So how realistic is this? I contacted Mike Lockwood, professor of space environment physics at the University of Reading, who explained that the possibility of temporarily declining solar activity of this kind is well established in literature, and two other studies found around a “15% chance of another Maunder Minimum in 50 years’ time”.

“The term ‘little ice age’ implies unremitting global cold weather – it was neither unremitting nor global.” - Professor Mike Lockwood, Reading University

So would this lead to a “mini ice age” as headlines are suggesting? “I hate the term ‘mini ice age’, because the Maunder Minimum was not an ice age in any shape or form,” Lockwood said.

“It was a period where there were more cold winters in Europe than more recent times – but it also contained the third-warmest winter in England since record began [in 1650] and, if anything, summers were hotter than even recent years!

“The term ‘little ice age’ implies unremitting global cold weather – it was neither unremitting nor global.”

Indeed, Lockwood’s own recent research on the subject suggests that changes in solar irradiance levels would have a minimal impact on the average global temperatures, but with “regional and seasonal effects in winter”, especially in the northern hemisphere.   

So although another Maunder Minimum could well be on the horizon – cheer up, it’s not the end of the world. You might just need to wrap up in the winter…

Images: Davey Nin and Olli Henze used under Creative Commons

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