A July 14 CNN.com article promoted the thoroughly debunked right-wing claim that, according to a group of scientists, a decrease in solar activity over the next 15 years could lead to a “deep freeze.” In reality, the scientists' findings about the “irregular heartbeat of the Sun” did not include any analysis of how it might impact global temperatures, and several recent studies that did address the issue found that any cooling from decreased solar activity would be far outweighed by increased warming due to greenhouse gas pollution.
In a July 9 press release, the British Royal Astronomical Society stated that professor Valentina Zharkova and her colleagues had created a model that suggests “solar activity will fall by 60 per cent during the 2030s to conditions last seen during the 'mini ice age' that began in 1645.” That line was quickly distorted by conservative media outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as the UK's Telegraph and The Washington Times, which claimed the scientists had found that the earth is likely heading for a “mini ice age.”
Zharkova herself did not help matters when she hesitantly answered, “Yes, indeed” when asked during a July 13 interview with Radio New Zealand whether she was “saying we've got 15 years before there's an ice age?” Zharkova, who is a professor of mathematics at Northumbria University in England, clarified later in the interview that she doesn't “do atmospheric research” and “can't say for sure” what impact the phenomenon she has predicted, known as a grand solar minimum, will have on the earth's climate relative to global warming.
However, studies that specifically researched the potential climate impact of a grand solar minimum have found that it would be very small compared to the continued warming that will occur as a result of man-made climate change, a fact that appeared in several publications before CNN.com posted its article.
In 2013, The Guardian's Dana Nuccitelli cited several studies on the impact a grand solar minimum would have on global temperatures, concluding, “A new grand solar minimum would not trigger another [Little Ice Age]; in fact, the maximum 0.3°C cooling would barely make a dent in the human-caused global warming over the next century.” More recently, The Washington Post reported on July 14 that “several other recent studies of a possible solar minimum have concluded that whatever climate effects the phenomenon may have will be dwarfed by the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions." Similarly, blog posts by Slate's Phil Plait and the websites ...and Then There's Physics and HotWhopper each cited one of those studies, which was published in Nature Communications and found that "[a]ny reduction in global mean near-surface temperature due to a future decline in solar activity is likely to be a small fraction of projected anthropogenic warming."
Moreover, Think Progress's Joe Romm has pointed out that that the planet actually faces the opposite of a “mini ice age” in the decades ahead, as recent studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory indicate that "[t]he Earth is headed toward an imminent speed-up in global warming" (emphasis original).
Despite all of this evidence to the contrary, CNN.com headlined its story, "Scientists: Sun's irregular 'heartbeat' could mean future freeze." The article did acknowledge lower down that the scientists' research has not been published or peer reviewed and “needs a closer look,” and also reported that NOAA's Doug Biesecker “said the research shouldn't give anyone the idea that because the weather may cool, climate change is not something to be worried about.” But these acknowledgements raise the question of why CNN.com ran this story in the first place.
CNN.com is not the only mainstream media outlet to help advance this climate denial myth; as climate advocate Miles Grant noted, ABC News affiliates in both the Bay Area and Chicago also reported that “scientists say [the] Earth will enter a 'mini ice age' by 2030.” Hopefully other media outlets won't make the same mistake.
Image at top via Flickr user Justin Kern using a Creative Commons License.