European banking crisis makes gold more appealing by the day
by Robin Bromby: The Australian.....On the subject of climate change, forget coal burning -- check on the sun. In the latest Agricommodities Monthly from ABN Amro, it is pointed out that the present sunspot cycle is the least active since 1823. In previous episodes of diminished solar activity, the world cooled significantly, the most remarkable of which was what became known as "the little ice age" between 1645 and 1715. The Baltic Sea froze in winter (you could drive a sledge from Poland to Sweden), European farms at higher altitudes could no longer grow wheat, and European fishing fleets were laid up as the cod disappeared south to warmer waters.
If ABN Amro's fears are proved right, and agriculture yields drop in the cooler countries, then the warmer regions of the world will need to carry the food burden. Therefore, they will need lots more fertiliser.
ABN AMRO Agricommodities Monthly: Investment Research by VM Group June 2011
This monthly report is intended to inform, educate and stimulate debate for the bank and its customers. This month we focus on the global sugar market.
On a quarterly rolling basis we provide in-depth analysis of three important agricommodities – cocoa, coffee and sugar.
Feature: in the shade
The sun is going into hibernation; solar activity is about the slow down; a mini-ice age will soon be upon us. The middle of June saw a slew of popular science magazines and journals come out with a variety of attention-grabbing stories, many of which carried banner headlines along the lines of “What’s Wrong With The Sun?” Given that some parts of Europe are stuck in drought, the short answer from farmers might be – there’s too much of it. But sorting the wheat from the chaff eveals some moderately disturbing longer-term possibilities for the Earth’s general climate – which if they come to pass, could have significant negative long-term implications for crop productivity.
According to Dr Frank Hill, associate director of the US National Solar Observatory’s (NSO) Solar Synoptic Network: “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.” Hill’s ‘right’ refers to evidence from three sources which suggest that the sun, upon which everything on earth depends, may be headed for a lengthy period of slowing activity. The implication of this for agricommodities – if past precedent is anything to go by – is worrying. For in two previous episodes of diminished solar activity, the northern hemisphere experienced significant cooling and diminished harvests, while there is increasing evidence that the less intensively researched southern hemisphere also saw its climate severely disrupted for a prolonged period .
Studies of the solar interior, the visible surface of the sun, and the corona, currently suggest that the next solar sunspot cycle, due to begin in 2019, “will be greatly reduced or may not happen at all.” This bombshell was dropped in June at the annual meeting of the Solar Physics Division of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Naturally, climate change sceptics leapt upon this with alacrity, as evidence that we have all been barking up the wrong tree: rather than worrying about the earth getting hotter we should be more concerned about it getting colder. It’s an uncomfortable truth that, as far as vegetation is concerned, a slightly warmer climate is generally to be welcomed; but a cooler planet would spell extremely difficult times for both farmers and food consumers.
Unless, that is, all that this lower solar activity (if it happens) does is to simply offset what warming may have otherwise happened. But that kind of neat balancing of the equation, a zero-sum cancelling out of anthropogenically-induced warming (through the release of rising levels of greenhouse gases) by slowing solar activity is a remote possibility; far more likely, simply because we cannot control solar activity (and neither greenhouse gas emissions, it seems) is that we face the risk of an increasingly cooler climate emerging over the next two decades – at precisely the same time as the world’s population is due to start climbing fast. For a week in June the mass media was, in a minor way, full of references to the research from the NSO. Then, as so often is the case, the story disappeared – too complicated, too remote, too easily overshadowed by more immediate events. Yet under the surface of what Hill and his colleagues tentatively put forward are some extremely profound implications for the future of farming and food production.
From minimum to maximum
Sunspots wax and wane on an 11-year cycle, with the waxing and waning patterns overlapping one another. The current cycle, Cycle 24, is due to see a peak in solar activity in May 2013, with an expected 58 sunspots. The science underlying the latest findings of Hill and his associates depends on a 15-year old discovery (by the same team) of an eastwest jet stream on the 5 billion year-old sun, the latitude of which relates to the sunspot cycle.
At the start of a new cycle the jet stream is located, like the sunspots, in mid-latitudes. It then slowly follows them toward the sun’s equator. This jet stream usually starts several years before the sunspot pattern. What’s interesting is that Cycle 24, which started in January 2008, is already the least active since Cycle 6, which ended in 1823. Cycle 25 is due to start in 2019, but Hill’s findings suggest that no new cycle is on the horizon – there ought to have been evidence of a change in the jet stream as far back as 2008, but as yet this has not happened. The longer we go on without signs emerging of a change in the jet stream, the more ‘confirmable’ will be the probability of either a very diminished or indeed no Cycle 25.
We owe our knowledge of the variability of the occurrence of sunspots largely to the American astronomer John A. Eddy, who in 1976 published a landmark paper in Science called ‘The Maunder Minimum’, named after Edward W. Maunder, an earlier astronomer who studied how sunspot latitudes changed over time. The Maunder Minimum was used by Eddy to refer to a period during 1645-1715 when sunspots became extremely rare, as noted by solar observations at the time. As with a previous minimum, the Spörer Minimum (1460-1550), which occurred before sunspots could be directly observed (the telescope was invented only in 1610), these episodes of much reduced solar activity coincided – a direct causal link cannot be established, to the chagrin of climate-change debaters – with extremely cold periods on earth. During one 30-year period within the Maunder Minimum astronomers observed only about 50 sunspots, as opposed to the thousands in modern times. Nor was it that solar observations were lacking – the Observatoire de Paris conducted a systematic programme of observations. What is notable is that the Maunder Minimum coincided with the middle, and coldest part of, the so-called Little Ice Age, during which Europe and North America experienced bitterly cold winters.
Centuries before, between 800-1200, Europe had basked in the so-called Medieval Warm Period, with temperatures averaging 2-3° C higher than today. The warmer climate meant that growing seasons were longer and more benevolent, and a much wider area was brought into farming; vineyards and farms flourished further north and at higher elevations.
The onset of the Little Ice Age, during which, (according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) the northern hemisphere cooling was only “modest”, at less than 1° C, put paid to all that.
It may have been only ‘modest’ on a hemispherical basis, but it was enough to regularly freeze the Baltic Sea in winters, such that people took sledge rides between Poland and Sweden, with seasonal inns established en route. In the winter of 1780 New York harbour froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. Successive harvest failures in France in the late 18th century were commonplace, and the resulting famines helped facilitate the French Revolution. According to Brian Fagan in The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History
, in the Alps the lack of wheat forced people to subsist “on bread made from ground nutshells mixed with barley and oat flour.” North European males lost on average 2.5 inches in height by the early 1700s, the result of inadequate diets and associated diseases. The knock-on effects of the cooler climate were manifold and selfreinforcing; Europe’s fishing fleets declined, as their main catch, cod, moved further south to warmer waters. It wasn’t all bad news. During the Little Ice Age, Spanish conquistadors returned from South America with a new staple foodstuff, suitable for the cool and damp climate of the Andes and which flourished in the new cooler and wetter climate in Europe –the potato.
After all, it’s only a variable star
Back in 1980 Eddy published another paper, in which he reminded us that the sun is a variable star, and considered the possible impact of a slowing down of solar activity.1 In this he wrote: “To this one star we also owe all our food – through the chain of life that begins in simple plants and aquatic forms – the replenishment of oxygen through photosynthesis, and the generation of nearly all of the energy that we have ever used…The sun is the engine that drives the atmosphere; even minor changes in its output could alter atmospheric composition, temperature, or circulation. These changes, if persistent, could influence the long-term average of weather – called climate – and through climatic change bend the path of human progress. Present mathematical models of global climate suggest that a decrease as small as 1% in the total radiation output of the sun is adequate to bring about a little ice age, of the sort that gripped Europe and America throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The same numerical simulations indicate that a change of only 0.1% in solar flux, if continued long enough, could bring about climatic changes of significant social and economic impact. And a change of 10%, in a negative direction, would be globally disastrous, inducing major glaciation and perhaps an icecovered earth which could only recover after a far greater and less likely increase of about 50%.” It would have been interesting to have Eddy’s response to Hill’s recent findings; sadly, he died in 2009. Nobody – least of all Hill and his colleagues – are predicting that there will be a repeat of the Little Ice Age. It’s a remote possibility and that’s all. But with the global balance of staple grains and cereals already so tight, and likely to get tighter as the world’s population grows and the area of arable land shrinks, we all need to hope that the worst-case prognosis does not come to pass.
1 Climate and the Role of the Sun: The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 10 No.4