A lot of very cold people are wondering what happened to global warming this winter. There has been record-breaking winter weather and snowpack in many parts of the world. It even snowed in Saudi Arabia. Does that mean that Hell has frozen over? If you were one of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who were evacuated or stuck in a railway station because of the weather, it must have seemed that way.
The culprit most commonly blamed for this anomaly is La Nina, a periodic cooling of the Pacific ocean. I think that another contributing factor has been the low level of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean, which would allow more evaporation–and, consequently, more precipitation.
There may be something else afoot, though, something much bigger and more unpredictable and totally out of our control. That something is the sunspot cycle.
Lots of sunspot activity is characteristic of a hot sun. The sun goes through eleven year cycles of spotting, but examination of the historic record reveals that there are times when the sunspot cycle stalls out, and that these stalls corellate with colder weather here on Earth. We are in just such a stall now. The sunspot cycle bottomed out in 2006, and two years later it has not kicked in again.
That didn’t stop 2006 and 2007 from being two of the hottest years on record, so it’s hard to say how much of a braking effect this solar cooling will have on our planetary warming. One thing it will not stop is the poisoning of our oceans with excess carbon dioxide, which wreaks havoc with phytoplankton and corals, both of which are basic to the ecology of the planet as we know it. If the solar minimum does succeed in noticeably cooling the planet, it will heat up the claims of climate change deniers, who will call for an end to this carbon curbing nonsense and try to convince us to dump more carbon in the atmosphere to help heat the planet. They are still wrong. Even if we slip temporarily into a new “little ice age,” we will still need to move beyond dependence on fossil fuels.
And cold weather does increase peoples’ demand for energy. It’s much harder to stay warm in a blizzard than it is to stay cool in a heat wave. If there is a global cold snap, it may also increase the pressure to create more nuclear power plants, but we need to resist that tempation, too. Uranium is as non-renewable as oil. It’s price has soared from $10/pound in 2004 to $73 today, and has been as high as $140. It will be at least that expensive again, because, even without new nuclear plants being built, there is only about a forty-year supply of uranium left in the ground. In Virginia, there is a political struggle over whether to mine a vein containing an estimated 110 million pounds of Uranium, the largest known untapped stash on the planet. Meanwhile, the US uses about 1730 million pounds of Uranium a year. I am aghast that people are willing to risk contaminating central Virginia forever just so they can run their hair dryers on nuclear power for a couple of months. Nuclear power creates massive, long-lasting contamination, and all the advances in PR and plant safety since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island haven’t done anything to change that.
Sunspots or no sunspots, nuclear power or no nuclear power, we are at a point in history when we cannot go on as we always have. All we can choose is whether we will change graciously or be dragged into the future kicking and screaming.