Most of us wouldn’t know by looking at it, but the sun has been in a record breaking mode lately for its lack of activity.
It’s a trend that Charlie Perry, a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey, follows closely. For the past few decades he has been charting the correlation between droughts and floods in the Midwest and the activity of the sun.
It is from that research that Perry predicts that the current lack of sun activity could lead to a cooler winter this year and drought conditions around 2043.
The sun goes through a cycle of activity about every 11 years. And right now, it is going through what is known as a solar minimum, a time of little activity with few sunspots, solar flares and sun quakes.
Through Aug. 31, 51 days had gone by with no signs of a sunspot. It was the fifth longest period for days without sunspots in 150 years. And, it came close to breaking a record set in 1913.
The sun is still on track to break a record for the fewest number of sunspotless days over a three-year period.
“It’s pretty hard to ignore the big orange ball in the sky that produces all the heat the earth has. And, very small fluctuations in that can make a big difference in our earth and climate,” Perry said.
Sunspots are the dark areas of cooler temperatures in the sun’s photosphere. During times that the number of sunspots are at their highest, temperatures are hotter and the sun is releasing more energy.
First seen by Galileo, sunspots have been tracked by humans since the 1600s.
From 1640 to 1715, when few sunspots were reported, the northern hemisphere experienced what was known as the Little Ice Age. Londoners ice skated on the frozen Thames and people could walk from Manhattan to Staten Island on ice.
Another period of few sunspots occurred in 1913.
“And, that is a time when old-timers talk about it being really cold,” Perry said.
Perry’s interest in weather began as a youth working on a farm in Douglas County during the drought of the 1950s.
“I would sit on the back of this old horse-drawn equipment and I would pray for rain and it would never come,” he said.
Perry, who has a background in physics, was a meteorologist for the Air Force and started working for the USGS in the 1970s as a hydrologist.
Since the early 1980s, Perry has been looking at patterns to see how the sun’s activity relates to droughts and floods in the Midwest.
What he knew was that the sun has an 11-year-cycle, there is a 22 year-cycle for magnetic polarity and major droughts in Kansas occur about every 20 years.
With that, Perry developed a thesis that when the sun is very active, it puts out more heat and causes fewer clouds. In turn, the oceans heat up and carry that warmth throughout the world, influencing local weather patterns.
The tricky part was figuring out the lag time between when the solar activity occurred and when the ocean currents reached North America to affect the weather system.
The 34-year link came by happenstance.
“I had (looked) at a three- or four-year lag. And I just happened to lay them down on a table, two sheets fairly far apart and looked at them and went ‘my gosh, it’s over a 30-year lag.’ And, I lined it up on the light table and it just fit like a glove,” he said. “I had a hard time explaining a three-year lag. So, how can I explain a 34-year lag? It’s been a slow process.”
An unpopular theory
Perry has traveled around speaking at conferences, gathering new ideas and information along the way. He says his work supports that of a renowned Danish physicist Henrick Svensmark.
Svensmark’s research shows that cosmic rays generate cloud formations. Therefore, during periods when solar activity is high, which slows down the number of cosmic rays entering the atmosphere, there are fewer clouds and the earth warms. This phenomenon, Svensmark has argued, contributed to the warming of the planet in the past century.
Perry and Svensmark’s work runs counter to the mainstream belief that carbon dioxide is the major cause of climate change.
Perry — a man who has an electric wind generator and once tried to make a solar collector out of 10,000 beer cans in the 1970s — still attempts to conserve energy for the sake of conserving energy.
“I’m a green guy,” he said. “It’s just that carbon dioxide has very little effect on our climate.”
The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disagrees. The panel has stated that solar radiation plays a small part in the warming and cooling of the planet. But, the panel attributes a much greater contribution to the effect from the increase in carbon emissions over the past few decades.
When looking at fluctuations in the earth’s atmosphere, David Braaten, Kansas University professor of atmospheric science, said the largest factor has been the enormous increase in carbon dioxide versus the ebbs and flows of the sun’s 11-year cycle.
“Basically, we have a long record of little changes going on in the atmosphere and there is this other huge change of concentration of (carbon dioxide). To try to explain that it has nothing to do with (climate change) is crazy,” Braaten said.
Perry knows his and Svensmark’s theory isn’t a popular one.
Even the USGS’s official point of view is that carbon dioxide is unequivocally the cause of climate change. Because of that, much of the research Perry has done has been on his own time and without the aid of grants.
Despite the doubters, Perry said he is not giving up.
“I am having too much fun,” he said. “I am finding out something new that no one else is finding out.”