Historic records reveal statistical link between sunspots and regional climate cycles
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — German scientists say they’ve established a statistical link between solar activity and the climate in Europe by tracking times when the Rhine River froze over. The research suggests that periods of low solar activity coincide with unusually cold winters in Central Europe.
Although the Earth’s surface overall continues to warm, the new analysis has revealed a correlation between periods of low activity of the Sun and of some cooling – on a limited, regional scale in Central Europe, along the Rhine.
The researchers emphasized that the changes affect atmospheric circulation, and don’t affect the average global temperature on any large scale, an important nuance as some global warming deniers still cite solar activity as a factor in the planet’s overall temperatures.
And even though low solar activity is linked with colder winters, those winters on the cold end of the spectrum have been getting warmer — The Rhine hasn’t frozen over since 1963.
“The advantage with studying the Rhine is because it’s a very simple measurement,” said Frank Sirocko ,lead author of a paper on the study and professor of Sedimentology and Paleoclimatology at the Institute of Geosciences of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. “Freezing is special in that it’s like an on-off mode. Either there is ice or there is no ice.”
From the early 19th through mid-20th centuries, riverboat men used the Rhine for cargo transport. Docks along the river have annual records of when ice clogged the waterway and stymied shipping. The scientists used these easily-accessible documents, as well as additional historical accounts, to determine the number of freezing episodes since 1780.
Sirocko and his colleagues found that between 1780 and 1963, the Rhine froze in multiple places 14 different times. The sheer size of the river means it takes extremely cold temperatures to freeze over, making freezing episodes a good proxy for very cold winters in the region, Sirocko said.
Mapping the freezing episodes against the solar activity’s 11-year cycle – a cycle of the Sun’s varying magnetic strength and thus total radiation output – Sirocko and his colleagues determined that ten of the fourteen freezes occurred during years around when the Sun had minimal sunspots. Using statistical methods, the scientists calculated that there is a 99 percent chance that extremely cold Central European winters and low solar activity are inherently linked.
“We provide, for the first time, statistically robust evidence that the succession of cold winters during the last 230 years in Central Europe has a common cause,” Sirocko said.
With the new paper, Sirocko and his colleagues have added to the research linking solar variability with climate, said Thomas Crowley, director of the Scottish Alliance for Geoscience, Environment, and Society, who was not involved with the study.
“There is some suspension of belief in this link,” Crowley said, “and this study tilts the argument more towards thinking there really is something to this link. If you have more statistical evidence to support this explanation, one is more likely to say it’s true.”
When sunspot numbers are down, the Sun emits less ultraviolet radiation. Less radiation means less heating of Earth’s atmosphere, which sparks a change in the circulation patterns of the two lowest atmospheric levels, the troposphere and stratosphere. Such changes lead to climatic phenomena such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, a pattern of atmospheric pressure variations that influences wind patterns in the North Atlantic and weather behavior in regions in and around Europe.
“Due to this indirect effect, the solar cycle does not impact average hemispheric temperatures, but only leads to regional temperature anomalies,” said Stephan Pfahl, a co-author of the study who is now at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science in Zurich.
The authors show that this change in atmospheric circulation leads to cooling in parts of Central Europe but warming in other European countries, such as Iceland. So, sunspots don’t necessarily cool the entire globe – their cooling effect is more localized, Sirocko said.
In fact, studies have suggested that the extremely cold European winters of 2010 and 2011 were the result of the North Atlantic Oscillation, which Sirocko and his team now link to the low solar activity during that time.
The 2010 and 2011 European winters were so cold that they resulted in record lows for the month of November in certain countries. Some who dispute the occurrence of anthropogenic climate change argue that this two-year period shows that Earth’s climate is not getting any warmer. But climate is a complex system, Sirocko said. And a short-term, localized dip in temperatures only temporarily masks the effects of a warming world.
“Climate is not ruled by one variable,” said Sirocko. “In fact, it has [at least] five or six variables. Carbon dioxide is certainly one, but solar activity is also one.”
To establish a more complete record of past temperature dips, the researchers are looking to other proxies, such as the spread of disease and migratory habits.
“Disease can be transported by insects and rats, but during a strong freezing year that is not likely,” said Sirocko. “Also, Romans used the Rhine to defend against the Germanics, but as soon as the river froze people could move across it. The freezing of the Rhine is very important on historical timescales.”
It wasn’t, however, the Rhine that first got Sirocko to thinking about the connection between freezing rivers and sunspot activity. In fact, it was a 125-mile ice-skating race he attended over 20 years ago in the Netherlands that sparked the scientist’s idea.
“Skaters can only do this race every 10 or 11 years because that’s when the rivers freeze up,” Sirocko said. “I thought to myself, ‘There must be a reason for this,’ and it turns out there is.”