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Considering the fearful imagery of burning and melting some expect to see in our future (thanks to global warming), the prospect of a “mini ice age” almost sounds pleasant at first. Perhaps the “cooler” nature of this “predicted ice age” is what made it gather so much publicity, but put your thermals away and don’t plan your 2030 ski vacations just yet—once again, we’ve been led astray by poor wording and media misinterpretation.
A press release by the Royal Astronomical Society on 2 July was intended to announce a presentation by University of Newcastle’s Valentina Zharkova, a Professor of Mathematics. Zharkova and her team of researchers had been analysing the 11-year cycles of the sun. Their model of the sun’s solar cycle yielded the prediction that “solar activity will fall by 60 per cent during the 2030s”. This occurrence is known as a Maunder Minimum and was last seen during a mini ice age in the Northern Hemisphere between 1645 and 1715, where notable harsh winters were experienced, along with the touted tale of the River Thames freezing over.
While Zharkova was predicting a new Maunder Minimum, her research was not necessarily predicting an ice age. In the last Maunder Minimum, the low solar activity was not the cause of the ice age. In fact, the first signs of this ice age, such as strong frosts on the River Thames, emerged almost four decades before the reduction in solar activity, in 1608.
If you’re still wondering whether you should be stressing about an ice age or not, you should note that Zharkova and her researchers were looking at this from a purely astronomical perspective, and their predictions were based on a model that is not yet part of a peer-reviewed, published study. Zharkova also later said in an interview that she herself “didn’t mention anything about the weather change”. While Zharkova does think the solar activity could have an impact on the climate, Professor of Meteorology at Pennsylvania State University Michael Mann argues that anthropogenic global warming (the human contribution of greenhouse gas emissions) will far outweigh any solar induced climate effects.