There's a little black spot on the sun today.
It's the same old thing as yesterday,
That's my soul up there.
I have stood here before in the pouring rain
With the world turning circles running 'round my brain.
The Police: King of Pain.
Floods in Iowa, a record cold winter in China, global temperatures suddenly dropping in the last year, it's all quite possibly linked to sunspots.
The Market Oracle: Solar Sun Spot Cycles Impact on Crop Yields, Energy Use and Weather Patterns.
Last month we listened to Donald Coxe's weekly presentation to institutional investors. Coxe is the Chairman and Chief Strategist of Harris Investment Management. He has been a bull on the commodity markets for some time now and has correctly pointed out numerous investment opportunities in the energy, metals, and grain markets.
Since the performance of so much of our portfolio is driven by the weather – especially companies in the energy and agricultural sectors – and since Coxe notes the current sunspot cycle may point to lower global temperatures, we decided to examine the issue. Other long term forecasters we follow have not raised the issue to date.
Coxe pointed out that we are at the low-point of the 11 year solar cycle (see chart above) – at the end of solar cycle 23 and at the start of solar cycle 24. Sunspot activity was expected to pick up significantly the last few months, with experts concerned about the impact of the powerful bursts of radiation on satellites, the electrical grid, and telecommunications systems.
But according to Coxe solar activity has been almost nil. He points out this has happened in the past. From 1645 to 1715 very little solar activity occurred after a normal series of cycles. Solar activity also declined from 1790 to 1830.
It is normal for the sun to have quiet periods between solar cycles, but some experts claim we've seen months of next to nothing activity-wise. While the start of solar cycle 24 seems to have materialized it “then abruptly disappeared.”
These historical periods of solar inactivity – dubbed the Maunder Minimum and Dalton Minimum after the astrologists who studied them - coincided with an irregular periods of rapid climate shifts. The climate cycles brought intensely cold winters, although periodically intense summer heat waves would also appear. The Maunder cycle is often referred to as the "Little Ice Age" – but climate experts claim the period is punctuated by both cold weather and rapid climate shifts.
These periods of low solar activity were also periods of sustained weather driven crop failures. Coxe notes that solar scientists strongly suspect there is a link between the Maunder and Dalton Minimums and the cold weather - but the exact mechanism remains elusive.
The question Coxe raises, and one we cannot answer, is whether the lack of sunspot activity in this cycle portends a trend to cooler weather, shorter growing seasons, and increased space heating demands – or is it just a statistical fluke?
Coxe argues that if the lack of solar activity is not a statistical fluke natural gas would be a ‘pure play' on this event due to the huge amount of natural gas used for space heating in North America . Natural gas is a very efficient and non-polluting heating fuel.
We would tend to agree with his assessment, but note that the incremental use of natural gas as a summer electrical generation ‘peaker plant' fuel may decline if air conditioner loads are significantly reduced.
The Daily Galaxy: The Sunspot Enigma: The Sun is “Dead”—What Does it Mean for Earth?
Athough periods of inactivity are normal for the sun, this current period has gone on much longer than usual and scientists are starting to worry—at least a little bit. Recently 100 scientists from Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa and North America gathered to discuss the issue at an international solar conference at Montana State University. Today's sun is as inactive as it was two years ago, and solar physicists don’t have a clue as to why.
Dana Longcope, a solar physicist at MSU, said the sun usually operates on an 11-year cycle with maximum activity occurring in the middle of the cycle. The last cycle reached its peak in 2001 and is believed to be just ending now, Longcope said. The next cycle is just beginning and is expected to reach its peak sometime around 2012. But so far nothing is happening.
"It's a dead face," Tsuneta said of the sun's appearance.
Tsuneta said solar physicists aren't weather forecasters and they can't predict the future. They do have the ability to observe, however, and they have observed a longer-than-normal period of solar inactivity. In the past, they observed that the sun once went 50 years without producing sunspots. That period coincided with a little ice age on Earth that lasted from 1650 to 1700. Coincidence? Some scientists say it was, but many worry that it wasn’t.
Geophysicist Phil Chapman, the first Australian to become an astronaut with NASA, said pictures from the US Solar and Heliospheric Observatory also show that there are currently no spots on the sun. He also noted that the world cooled quickly between January last year and January this year, by about 0.7C.
"This is the fastest temperature change in the instrumental record, and it puts us back to where we were in 1930," Dr Chapman noted in The Australian recently.
If the world does face another mini Ice Age, it could come without warning. Evidence for abrupt climate change is readily found in ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica. One of the best known examples of such an event is the Younger Dryas cooling, which occurred about 12,000 years ago, named after the arctic wildflower found in northern European sediments. This event began and ended rather abruptly, and for its entire 1000 year duration the North Atlantic region was about 5°C colder. Could something like this happen again? There’s no way to tell, and because the changes can happen all within one decade—we might not even see it coming.
More at a later time.
Prisoners of the Sun I.
Prisoners of the Sun II.