You may have heard over the last month or so something in the media about scientists predicting that we’re going to be in a “mini-ice age” by the year 2030, supposedly because of new research uncovered about sunspots and solar activity. The UK outlet the Telegraph reported this on July 11, and CNN also reported it. This irresponsible and misleading reporting by major news outlets is maddening (and typical) enough, but what has alarmed me is how quickly and how easily this misinformation got into the public bloodstream. Several times over the past few weeks I’ve been confronted with this conclusion–and not from people who generally deny the proven scientific fact of anthropogenic global warming. I encountered it in connection with my class, recently completed, on the history of climate change; not long ago someone mentioned it to me on Twitter. This little nugget of untruth has proven the old saying, that a lie can circle the world in the time it takes the truth to put its shoes on.

miniiceage

The truth is this: we are not headed for an ice age, and scientists never said any such thing. The mis-impression that they did stems from two mistakes: first, in the way a real scientific study was reported, and second, in what science actually shows about the relationship of the sun to climate change.

What really happened was that in early July a peer-reviewed paper by British scientists Simon Shepherd, Sergei Zharkov and Valentina Zharkova reported they’d finished a new model of the sun’s magnetic field and sunspot activity, and they predicted that sunspots will decline dramatically by the year 2030. That’s all. No Ice Age, no reversing of global warming, no ice-skating on the Thames or the return of Frost Fairs (the last one was in 1814). The paper didn’t even mention climate at all. Where the “mini ice-age” stuff came in was when a press release about the paper noted that the levels of sunspots in 2030 will be similar to what’s known as the Maunder Minimum, a historic decline in sunspot activity which happened in the 17th century. As it happens, the Maunder Minimum coincided with a period of lower temperatures which climate historians have called–not altogether accurately–the “Little Ice Age.”

When people read these statements together their brains hasten to connect them–essentially, they jump to conclusions. Because the Maunder Minimum coincided with the Little Ice Age, and sunspots in 2030 will be at the levels of the Maunder Minimum, therefore we will be in another Little Ice Age by 2030. Break out your snow boots!

This is a massive logical fallacy. In its most reductive form, it’s a simple conclusion that sunspots and solar activity cause climate change. This idea is false, but it’s notoriously hard to get rid of. The supposed connection between sunspots and climate change seems almost instinctive. I’ve encountered it in my own research, which involves temporary climate change (global cooling) during the 1810s, caused by volcanic eruptions. In a solid peer-reviewed history text by a reputable historian, I found the totally erroneous statement that sunspot activity in 1816, the “Year Without Summer,” was at an all-time high, which is totally false, but the mistake projected the misleading image–even without saying so in so many words–that sunspots were somehow linked to the 1816 climate anomalies. Misinformation of this kind is like anti-matter. A tiny atom of it can, even in the minds of well-meaning and informed people, blow up a huge mass of scientific evidence that indicates the exact opposite is true. This is why setting the record straight is important.

In fact, solar activity has been proven not to have a significant effect on climate change as it has been occurring since the Industrial Revolution. There’s just no link. The Maunder Minimum did not cause the Little Ice Age; in fact there is considerable evidence that the whole concept of the “Little Ice Age” itself is misleading. When I taught my climate change class this summer, I found it very difficult to reconcile any two historians’ accounts of when the “Little Ice Age” was, where it was (it didn’t affect the planet equally), or how long it lasted. Clearly there were periods of cooling between 1275 and 1800, but they weren’t uniform, they weren’t continuous, and there were periods of warming in between. Incidentally, the most well-documented period of cooling, the one that began about 1275, occurred centuries before the Maunder Minimum, thus breaking any perception of correlation between sunspots and lowered temperatures.

But news media–eager to jump on a “dog bites man” story that casts doubt on the proven scientific consensus of anthropogenic global warming–got hold of this little piece of antimatter and blew it up into a story, absolutely without merit, that circled the world, that reached me on my vacation (a member of my family told me about the “2030 ice age”), barged into my classroom, and popped up on my Twitter.

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Let’s be clear. There will be no Ice Age, little or otherwise, in 2030. The sun isn’t causing our planet to warm–we are. It’s going to keep happening, and it’s going to be worse by 2030 than it is now. These are the truths of climate change. We must deal with them.

The header image contains a photo (the mammoth) by Flickr user Tracy O and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. I relicense the resulting header image under the same license.
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