Watch the Sun

Watching the sun could provide clues about global warming1.

In 1800, William Herschel, a leading astronomer, established that the price of wheat was linked to the number of sunspots. During years of good weather wheat was plentiful and the price was low. In years of poor weather, there would be a scarcity of wheat and the price of wheat would be high.

When Herschel compared the price of wheat in good and bad years with the number of sunspots he was surprised to find that the price of wheat was low when there were many sunspots, but high when there were few sunspots.

By this measure, he had linked the sun to climate.

For his efforts, Herschel was ridiculed in the press. One contemporary said, “Since the publication of Gulliver’s voyage to Laputa, nothing so ridiculous [linking sunspots to the price of wheat] has been offered to the world2.”

Then, in the years following Herschel’s observation, several astronomers were captivated by variations in the earth’s magnetic field. Several astronomers established that changes in the earth’s magnetic field were linked to sunspots.

On August 28, 1859, at 6:30 pm, all the telegraph lines out of Boston’s State Street office stopped working. In Springfield, Massachusetts, an electric arc nearly destroyed the telegraph office. An arc in Washington DC nearly killed the telegraph operator. And these were not isolated events.

As darkness settled in Massachusetts, an aurora was brighter than the sunset. A fiery red aurora was visible in Key West, Florida. It was also seen in the Bahamas.

The magnetic storm continued into August 29th.

While this heavenly display was covering the northern hemisphere, the lights started streaming north from Antarctica. The Sydney, Australia, observatory recorded the aurora. Ships rounding Cape Horn saw the aurora on both nights.

The range of these lights, stretching in the northern hemisphere southward to the Caribbean, and from Antarctica, in the Southern Hemisphere, to the northern most reaches of Chili, were, and remain, astounding magnetic events. The magnetic storms of 1859, caused by solar flares, have been referred to as the Carrington Event3.

A solar flare of this magnitude could, today, cause the grid to collapse across the northern Unites States, where it could take over a year to restore the grid, leaving major cities, such as New York, Detroit and Chicago without electricity for months.

The earth and sun are linked by solar storms.

Two hundred years earlier, in 1671, the sighting of a single sunspot elicited huge interest and excitement, as it was the first sunspot seen in twenty years.

In fact, there was a dearth of sunspots between 1645 and 1715. In 1922 Edward Walter Maunder continued his research of sunspots realizing that a lack of sunspots would have a profound effect on the magnetic Sun-Earth linkage.

Eventually, Maunder was able to link periods of weak sunspot activity with cold weather.

Since then, the Maunder Minimum has been linked to the Little Ice Age where the Themes River and the canals in Holland froze over. The areas in blue, from this NASA chart, show where the temperatures were lowest during the Maunder Minimum.

Chart from NASA of worldwide temperature differentials from normal between 1680 and 1780.
Chart from NASA of worldwide temperature differentials from normal between 1680 and 1780.

Every scientist now agrees that sunspots create magnetic storms, but the question has been, “How can sunspots affect climate?”

Around twenty years ago, Dr. Henrik Svensmark, of the Danish Meteorology Institute, discovered that cloud cover varied in lockstep with the solar cycle.

In essence, he postulated that solar flares affected the sun’s magnetic field around the earth in such a way that a period of fewer flares weakened the magnetic field around the earth, which allowed cosmic rays to enter the earth’s atmosphere and produce low level clouds. He reasoned that periods with more flares strengthened the magnetic field which shielded the earth from cosmic rays, thereby reducing low level cloud cover.

He reasoned that more low level clouds would result in lower temperatures.

Anyone who has stood outdoors on a hot, sunny day has experienced the cooling effect of a cloud when it covers the sun.

Svensmark performed some rudimentary experiments that seemed to demonstrate that cosmic rays could form clouds. The ability of cosmic rays to form clouds was the unproven link between solar flares, the magnetic field and cloud cover.

The experiments were successful enough to have CERN conduct an experiment, Cosmic Leaving Outdoor Droplets, i.e., CLOUD, using a specially constructed cloud chamber to mimic the earth’s atmosphere.

The experiments at CERN have shown that cosmic rays could form clouds.

The hypothesis that a period with few sunspots could affect earth’s climate by causing colder temperatures is supported by historic anecdotal evidence reaching back several hundred years, coupled with scientific experiments that seem to demonstrate the ability of cosmic rays to form low level clouds.

It would appear that the sunspot hypothesis has more scientific and historic supporting evidence than does the hypothesis that Green House Gasses cause climate change.

It will take years, if not decades, for the sunspot hypothesis to be validated. In the interim, it has sufficient scientific underpinnings to be taken seriously, and to cast significant doubt on the competing Green House Gas hypothesis that lacks historic substantiation prior to 1800. The GHG, i.e., CO2, hypothesis falls apart before 1800.

Meanwhile, it will be worth our effort to watch the sun and avoid actions that attempt to reduce Green House Gas emissions.

  1. An earlier article said to watch Germany to see how its economy is affected by renewables, specifically wind and PV solar, as Germany continues to attempt to increase its share of electricity from renewables from 22% to 80% by 2050.
  2. From the Sun Kings by Stuart Clark.
  3. The Carrington event is described in great detail in The Sun Kings. Carrington was an astronomer and member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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8 thoughts on “Watch the Sun

  1. During periods of higher sunspots, the Sun is also more active in emission of energetic charged particles. As these propagate outward, the stronger electromagnetic fields associated with them fill the entire inner solar system. It is these stronger solar-generated fields that exclude lower energy cosmic rays from the inner solar system and the Earth’s atmosphere, not the Earth’s magnetic field.
    The authors of the CERN experiment you quote did express optimism for their study in linking cloud formation with cosmic particle fluxes in Earth’s atmosphere and suggested additional studies. But, they were careful not to claim that their experiment was proof of the concept.

    • Thanks for your comment. I agree, and will change my wording to reflect the sun’s magnetic field rather than saying “of the earth’s magnetic field”. This is more accurate and I appreciate your clarification: Your description of the process is better than mine.
      I agree that CERN did not say that the experiment proved the concept, which is why I said “seemed” to demonstrate, etc.

  2. Pingback: Watch the Sun (re-blog) | budbromley

  3. With regard to the description of telegraph outages and auroras in 1859, our modern satellite TV is affected by ‘Sun Outages’ as well.

    • That’s correct. The reason for highlighting the telegraph system was that it was the only system in existence based on electromagnetic principles, while today our entire society relies on the grid and electricity. The impact of the solar flares was trivial compared with the potential impact today.
      Thanks for your comment.

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