Mon, Sep 25, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Cooling Sun may bring relief to a sweltering Earth

SOLAR SWING Help in battle against global warming as scientists claim that our nearest star is about to go into a period of reduced activity


The Earth could be rescued from global warming by an unlikely savior: Not fewer cars, nor less pollution, nor even thousands of wind farms spread across Britain's hillsides -- but, remarkably, by a cooler Sun. An international group of scientists believes a period of reduced solar activity could soon bring desperately needed cooling to our sweltering world.

The work is based on research of past periods of climatic change, including the Little Ice Age in the 1700s when Europe shivered, the Thames froze over, and harvests failed. At the same time, solar activity dropped and sunspots disappeared from the face of the Sun.

Now leading scientists are predicting that we may soon enter such a period again -- although they stress such cooling would only bring temporary relief to our overheated world. In the end, the Earth will still be swamped by huge rises in global temperatures, triggered by human activities, that will affect the planet over the next few decades.

"If there was a period of low solar activity, it could give us a little more time to combat global warming and to introduce the curbs on the carbon emissions that we need to limit climate change," said Joanna Haigh a professor at Imperial College, London.

The revelation comes in the wake of NASA's successful launch on Friday of the Solar-B mission, which will study the Sun's corona. Space scientists are finalizing preparations for two other probes to study the star that dominates the world: Stereo, in which one spaceship will fly ahead of, and another behind, the Earth as it orbits the Sun; and Solar Orbiter, which will swoop close to the Sun's surface to gain a detailed view of its surface.

Scientists have known for decades that the Sun's output varies over an 11-year cycle. More recently, they have found what appear to be other, longer cycles affecting its output. These occasionally cause perceptible drops in solar radiation. For example, during the Little Ice Age, which affected Europe from 1650 to the end of the 18th century, astronomers noted that sunspots disappeared completely from the face of the Sun.

"High numbers of sunspots are associated with increased solar output," said professor Sami Solanki, of the Max Planck Institute for Solar Research, in Katlenberg-Lindau, Germany. "Sunspots occur when magnetic fields rip through the Sun's surface and show that vast amounts of energy are being released deep within its heart. The impact on the Earth can be considerable."

Studies have shown that when solar output is high, the climate tends to be hot. For example, over the past 30 to 40 years scientists believe the Sun has been particularly active, adding to Earth's already considerable heating problems. However, things may change in the near future.

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