Whether you’re watching the sunrise from your back porch or you’re basking in the Sun’s rays at the beach, it’s easy to take for granted the consistency of the Sun and its relationship to the Earth. It rises and sets each day and night, and while you can never really count on the weather, the seasons come and go in roughly the same pattern each year.
The Earth’s climate, however, does evolve over the course of generations –– millennia, even. And you might not realize it lying on a towel in the sand, but changes in the behavior of the Sun can contribute to that evolution. So, how are solar activity and climate connected? According to scientists, even small fluctuations in solar activity can have an impact here on Earth, altering climate and weather in complex and unexpected ways.
Let’s take a look at how and why the Sun and its activity affects the Earth’s climate.
A Constant Star
Relative to other stars in the galaxy, our Sun is considered a comparably constant star. While some stars vary in size, brightness, and the amount of energy they produce, the Sun remains fairly stable; the amount of light created by the Sun only changed by about 0.1 percent over the course of an 11-year-long solar cycle tracked by researchers.
However, that tiny fraction of variation –– that seemingly insignificant 0.1 percent –– suddenly becomes far more significant when you take into account the fact that the light produced by the Sun is responsible for approximately 2,500 times as much energy as every other energy source on Earth combined.
National Research Council (NRC) wanted to know more about solar activity and climate, so they brought together scholars and experts in astronomy, physics, chemistry, and more. Their assignment was to study solar cycles and climate and try to determine some of the ways that changes in the Sun’s behavior might affect Earth.
Their findings were complicated in nature, to say the least! One example they came up with for how solar activity could affect climate pertained to the reduction of the ozone layer. If the Sun’s emittance of cosmic rays triggered a reduction in ozone levels, this would change the behavior of the atmosphere. That could, in turn, change the course of storms along the surface of the Earth.
This is due to the connection between ozone and temperature; when ozone is reduced, it cools the stratosphere. This creates a greater contrast in temperatures between the polar regions and the central tropics. This prompts an instability in the atmosphere moving west to east and changing the course of jet streams –– and any weather associated with them.
The Maunder Minimum
Scientists have dubbed the period between the late 17th to early 18th century as the Little Ice Age due to the especially cold winters experienced in the Americas and across Europe. Some scientists speculate that the “Maunder Minimum,” a 70-year stretch during which there were a below-average number of sunspots, could have contributed to the unusually cold temperatures, as the lack of sunspots is indicative of a lower production in ultraviolet radiation.
Some researchers wonder if we are approaching yet another Maunder Minimum, because the current solar cycle is the weakest it has been in over half a century. If that is the case, researchers believe it is more important than ever to understand the link between solar cycles and climate, as this could impact global weather patterns for years to come.
Solar Activity and Climate Change
Despite the fact that the Sun provides the vast majority of energy and heat for Earth, disruptions and variations in solar activity are not responsible for the greenhouse gas-related global warming that has been measured in the past several decades.
According to scientists, the Sun certainly has the potential to cause enormous fluctuations in Earth’s climate –– but luckily for us, it doesn’t really do so. Rather, the Sun remains fairly stable in terms of its radiation output, and therefore, does not cause extreme changes in climate with any frequency.
One could imagine the challenges of living near a less stable star; more extreme changes in solar activity and climate would make life on that planet very different –– and unpredictable! All the more reason for those of us here on Earth to meet the current challenges of climate change while there is still time.
Scientists hope that investment will still be made in space technology and imaging devices, such as radiometric imagers, to better understand solar activity, solar cycles and climate.
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Continue Your Study of the Sun
Whether you’re interested in gazing up at the stars, gaining a deeper understanding of solar phenomenon, or just love the way sunlight dances off of suncatchers, Rainbow Symphony is the place for you.
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