Real risk of a Maunder minimum 'Little Ice Age' says leading scientist

It’s known by climatologists as the ‘Little Ice Age’, a period in the 1600s when harsh winters across the UK and Europe were often severe.

 

The severe cold went hand in hand with an exceptionally inactive sun, and was called the Maunder solar minimum.

 

Now a leading scientist from Reading University has told me that the current rate of decline in solar activity is such that there’s a real risk of seeing a return of such conditions.

 

I’ve been to see Professor Mike Lockwood to take a look at the work he has been conducting into the possible link between solar activity and climate patterns.

 

According to Professor Lockwood the late 20th century was a period when the sun was unusually active and a so called ‘grand maximum’ occurred around 1985.

 

Since then the sun has been getting quieter.

 

By looking back at certain isotopes in ice cores, he has been able to determine how active the sun has been over thousands of years.

 

Following analysis of the data, Professor Lockwood believes solar activity is now falling more rapidly than at any time in the last 10,000 years.

 

He found 24 different occasions in the last 10,000 years when the sun was in exactly the same state as it is now - and the present decline is faster than any of those 24.

 

Based on his findings he’s raised the risk of a new Maunder minimum from less than 10% just a few years ago to 25-30%.

 

And a repeat of the Dalton solar minimum which occurred in the early 1800s, which also had its fair share of cold winters and poor summers, is, according to him, ‘more likely than not’ to happen.

 

He believes that we are already beginning to see a change in our climate - witness the colder winters and poor summers of recent years - and that over the next few decades there could be a slide to a new Maunder minimum.

 

It’s worth stressing that not every winter would be severe; nor would every summer be poor. But harsh winters and unsettled summers would become more frequent.

 

Professor Lockwood doesn’t hold back in his description of the potential impacts such a scenario would have in the UK.

 

He says such a change to our climate could have profound implications for energy policy and our transport infrastructure.

 

Although the biggest impact of such solar driven change would be regional, like here in the UK and across Europe, there would be global implications too.

 

According to research conducted by Michael Mann in 2001, a vociferous advocate of man-made global warming, the Maunder minimum of the 1600s was estimated to have shaved 0.3C to 0.4C from global temperatures. 

It is worth stressing that most scientists believe long term global warming hasn’t gone away. Any global cooling caused by this natural phenomenon would ultimately be temporary, and if projections are correct, the long term warming caused by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would eventually swamp this solar-driven cooling.

 

But should North Western Europe be heading for a new "little ice age", there could be far reaching political implications - not least because global temperatures may fall enough, albeit temporarily, to eliminate much of the warming which has occurred since the 1950s.

 

You can see more on Inside Out on Monday 28th October on BBC1, at 7.30pm.

 

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