After intensely studying the sun's surface, inner core and its solar activity, scientists are projecting that following its maximum activity in 2013; the sun will be in hibernation mode, which could trigger a mini ice age on Earth.
Since the sun awoke from its 11-year waning period, there have been numerous reports of solar flares, coronal mass ejections and sunspots, which could inevitably affect our planet’s electrical grid and communications satellites in the future.
Three independent studies have now led scientists to conclude that after the sun reaches its solar activity peak, we could reach the point of a grand minimum. Researchers say the next solar cycle would occur in 2020, if at all.
Experts from the National Solar Observatory (NSO) and Air Force Research Laboratory said the studies show signs of this through fading sunspots on the surface, slower activity at the poles and missing jet streams in the solar interior. The number of sunspots, though, can vary from cycle to cycle. In 2008, the sun had its longest and weakest period of solar minimum.
NASA published an in-depth report on the solar minimum that can be viewed here.
“This is important because the solar cycle causes space weather which affects modern technology and may contribute to climate change,” associate director of the NSO's Solar Synoptic Network, Frank Hill, told reporters, according to Agence-France Presse. “If we are right, this could be the last solar maximum we'll see for a few decades. That would affect everything from space exploration to Earth's climate.”
At the present time, the sun is in Solar Cycle 24 and the long-term inclination is that the sun’s magnetic field wouldn’t be strong enough to produce sunspots in the next Solar Cycle 25.
“The flow for Cycle 25 should have appeared in 2008 or 2009 but it has not and we see no sign of it,” said Hill. “This indicates that the start of Cycle 25 may be delayed to 2021 or 2022, with a minimum great that what we just experienced, or may not happen at all.”
The data scientists have received, which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has prompted them to compare this solar activity to the solar sleep that occurred between 1645 and 1715.
This 70-year period was identified as the Maunder Minimum that transpired at the same time as the Little Ice Age, which caused regular freezing in Europe and in North America. Temperatures declined by 1.8 to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius).
Although scientists have not proven that there was a connection between the Little Ice Age and solar minimum, they are discussing if the planet will go through cooler global temperatures and a second Maunder Minimum-type period of time.
“We have some interesting hints that solar activity is associated with climate, but we don't understand the association,” said NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory project scientist, Dean Pesnell, in an interview with the National Geographic. He noted, though, that a solar minimum likely wouldn’t be able to offset global warming.
In the end, humans could be spared the devastating effects of maximum solar activity for a few decades. In an interview in 2010, physicist Michio Kaku warned that in 2013, the Earth will be hit with solar storms that could wipe out communications satellites and electrical grids.