No, Solar Variations Can’t Account for the Current Global Warming Trend. Here’s Why:

In part I of this series on the sun and Earth’s climate, I covered the characteristics of the sun’s 11 and 22 year cycles, the observed laws which describe the behavior of the sunspot cycle, how proxy data is used to reconstruct a record of solar cycles of the past, Grand Solar Maxima and Minima, the relationship between Total Solar Irradiance (TSI) and the sunspot cycle, and the relevance of these factors to earth’s climate system. In part II, I went over the structure of the sun, and some of the characteristics of each layer, which laid the groundwork for part III, in which I explained the solar dynamo: the physical mechanism underlying solar cycles, which I expanded upon in part IV, in which I talked about some common approaches to solar dynamo modeling, including Mean Field Theory. This installment covers how all of that relates to climate change and the current warming trend.

Solar Cycles and Earth’s Climate

The sun is responsible for nearly all of the energy entering our climate system, so it should come as no surprise that variations in Total Solar Irradiance throughout solar cycles do indeed affect Earth’s climate (Eddy 1977, Bond 2001, Solanki 2002, de Jager 2008). Knowing this, it’s natural to wonder whether solar variations are to blame for the current global warming trend. There’s nothing irrational about wondering “hey, you know that gigantic fusion reactor fireball thing in the sky? What if that thing has something to do with global warming and climate change?” I want to emphasize that this is by no means a crazy or unreasonable question to ask. It’s just that with the current warming we’re not just looking at cyclical oscillations or subtle fluctuations; we’re looking at a clear trend (NOAA 2016, Anderson et al 2013, Hansen et al 2010). And changes in solar activity are simply not sufficient to explain that rate and magnitude of the current trend (Frohlich 1998, Meehl et al 2004, Wild 2007, Lean and Rind 2008, Duffy 2009, Gray et al 2010, Kopp 2011).

It has been estimated that climate forcings attributable to solar variability have not contributed more than 30% of the global warming from 1970 – 1999 (Solanki 2003). To add insult to injury, 15 of the 16 hottest years on the instrumental record have occurred since the turn of the millennium, and more recent analyses have found that the solar activity and global temperature trends have been moving in opposite directions in recent cycles (Lockwood and Frohlich 2007 and 2008, Lockwood 2009). Moreover, researchers have found that the warming trend becomes even clearer after correcting for El Niños and volcanic and solar forcings (Foster 2011).

That’s right! Solar activity has actually declined in the last decade, and this last cycle (solar cycle 24) has been well below average amplitude (Jiang 2015, Pesnell 2016). So if changes in solar activity were the principle determinant of the recent changes, we should expect to be experiencing cooling: not warming. So this is also ruled out as a principle cause of late 20th century and early 21st century global warming and resultant climate change. Look at how solar forcings stack up against the observed temperature curve from Meehl et al 2004.

Image 3: c/o Meehl 2004

Firstly, if greenhouse gases are primarily responsible, we should expect to see little change in the amount of solar energy entering the earth’s atmosphere, but a decrease in the amount leaving. Contrastingly, if the sun is primarily responsible, we should expect to see an increase both in the energy entering earth’s atmosphere and the amount leaving. Since the mid-late 1970s, we’ve been able to measure this with satellites.

Lo and behold! It turns out that the rate of energy coming in from the sun has changed very little, while the rate at which energy leaves the earth has decreased significantly (Harries 2001, Griggs and Harries 2007, Philipona 2004, Leroy 2008, Worden 2008, Huang et al 2010). This is the proverbial smoking gun evidence that recent climate change is not due to changes in solar forcing, but rather to the greenhouse effect.

Secondly, if the warming effects were attributable primarily to the sun, then we should be seeing a very different distribution of temperatures than what we are actually observing. Specifically, warming due to solar forcing should be most prominent during the daytime and during the summer months, because these are the times during which the sun is most intensely bombarding the earth.

However, what we observe instead is that night time and winter temperatures are increasing faster than would be the case if the sun was chiefly responsible for the trend (Alexander et al 2006, Caesar et al 2006). This distribution cannot be explained by natural variability, but is consistent with the predictions of the greenhouse effect explanation (Brown 2008). The energy is entering the climate system during the day when the sun is shining, and is getting trapped by greenhouse gases, which slows down the rate at which that energy can escape the earth’s atmosphere. Alexander et al in particular found that over 70% of the land area sampled showed a significant increase in the occurrence of warm nights annual from 1951 – 2003, and a corresponding decrease in the occurrence of cold nights (Alexander et al 2006). So, here we have multiple lines of smoking gun evidence unanimously converging on the conclusion that current climate change cannot be blamed on changes in solar activity.

Could a Grand Minimum Mitigate 21st Century Global Warming?

Okay, so we know that variations in Total Solar Irradiance can’t account for the current warming trend, but what if we just lucked out and entered a new Grand Solar Minimum? How likely is it that it would stop or reverse the trend, and make the last few decades of climate science research and undesirable predictions seem like much ado about nothing? This possibility has been investigated in several papers as well. Although the predictions vary slightly insofar as the precise amounts by which TSI and temperatures would be reduced, they all arrive at reductions in TSI of no greater than a few watts per square meter, a slowing of ascending temperatures by no more than 0.1 – 0.3 °C, and therefore imply that a 21st Century Grand Minimum would (at most) slightly slow global warming down temporarily without actually stopping it (Wigley et al 1990, Feulner and Rahmstorf 2010, Jones et al 2012, Meehl et al 2013, Anet et al 2013, Maycock et al 2015). One might reason that any delay in the warming trend would be better than nothing, because it might buy some time for the innovation and implementation of mitigation and/or coping strategies, and I would not be compelled to argue against that, but the current weight of the evidence suggests that it would be of only marginal help at best.


In summary, solar cycles can affect earth’s weather and climate, both on decadal scales in correspondence with the 11 year sunspot cycle, as well as longer term amplitude changes associated with grand solar maxima and minima.

The prevailing scientific theory for the mechanism underlying these cycles is the solar dynamo, which explains the associated magnetic field oscillations in terms of a branch of physics called magnetohydronamics. It accounts for the observed sunspot butterfly diagrams, Sporer’s Law, Joy’s Law, and Hale’s Polarity Law, and explains the 11 and 22 year cycle periods. Mean Field theory is one of the ways in which stellar astrophysicists simplify solar dynamo model calculations, but it has its limitations.

Multiple lines of evidence suggest the current warming trend on earth is not caused by an increase in solar activity. We know from satellite data that there has been no substantial increase in the amount of solar energy (TSI) entering earth’s climate system, but less of it has been making it back out into space. Moreover, winter and night time warming has increased rapidly, which is consistent with the greenhouse effect explanation, but not with the solar forcing explanation.

Additionally, if a 21st Century Grand Solar Minimum were to occur, it would most-likely have a noticeable but small slowing effect on Global Warming and the resultant Climate Change.

What we humans should do about this is not a strictly scientific question, because it depends not only on model predictions but also on normative issues, personal values, and cost-benefit analyses of different potential solution strategies (both technological and political). However, what we do know with VERY high confidence is that global warming and climate change are happening, and that the sun is not to blame for it.


Related Articles:


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Image Credits:

Image 3:

Meehl, G. A., Washington, W. M., Ammann, C. M., Arblaster, J. M., Wigley, T. M. L., & Tebaldi, C. (2004). Combinations of natural and anthropogenic forcings in twentieth-century climate. Journal of Climate17(19), 3721-3727.

Images 1 and 2:

Myhre, G., D. Shindell, F.-M. Bréon, W. Collins, J. Fuglestvedt, J. Huang, D. Koch, J.-F. Lamarque, D. Lee, B. Mendoza, T. Nakajima, A. Robock, G. Stephens, T. Takemura and H. Zhang, 2013: Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 659–740, doi:10.1017/ CBO9781107415324.018.

Image 4:

Thoughtscapism and Making Sense of Climate Science Denial

coronal mass ejection c/o NASA

How Continental Drift affects Climate: Part II – Possible Snowball Earth Triggering Mechanisms + Regional Effects of Mountain Ranges

In Part 1 of this article, I outlined some of the variables which can affect Earth’s climate, and gave a brief overview of plate tectonics, and how continental drift can lead to climate change through albedo feedback and via the alteration of ocean circulation and heat distribution patterns. In doing so, I used the example of the Rodinia Supercontinent and the Snowball Earth hypothesis of the Neoproterozoic era in order to relate the concepts to events in Earth’s prehistory. For the sake of completeness, I want to finish up that example by briefly going over a few proposed triggering mechanisms that could have made a runaway albedo feedback loop possible in the Cryogenian period. After that, I want to go over the ways in which the presence of mountain ranges can affect local and regional climate.

Although the exact causal sequence (and even the SnowBall Earth hypothesis itself) is still an unresolved area of active scientific debate, there are multiple candidates for such a cooling trigger mechanism: decreased solar luminosity, global cooling from a Super Volcano eruption, or perhaps a reduction in atmospheric methane – a much stronger greenhouse gas than CO2 – due to reactions with atmospheric oxygen could plausibly have contributed. There is also evidence suggesting increased sequestration of CO2 by rocks due to weathering effects from high precipitation levels. The idea behind the latter hypothesis is the following: Carbonate and Silicate rock weathering reactions are important carbon sinks in Earth’s carbon cycle:

Carbonate rock weathering reaction:

CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O → 2HCO3 + Ca2+

Silicate rock weathering reaction:

CaSiO3 + 2CO2 + H2O → 2HCO3 + Ca2+ + SiO2

Precipitation levels tend to be high around the equator, which therefore increases these weathering reactions, and thus increases CO2 sequestration, thereby decreasing the greenhouse effect, and leading to global cooling. Once sufficient equatorial land ice could accumulate, the aforementioned ice albedo feedback effect could ensue.

The end of the extreme Neoproterozoic glaciation is an interesting story in its own right, but in addition to the breakup of Rodinia via continental drift, it involves a greenhouse effect facilitated by a very long period of extreme volcanism, which I’ll be covering in a subsequent post. It also directly preceded the Cambrian explosion.

Rodinia was not the last time Earth had a tropical continental arrangement, but a critical change occurred: the evolution of forests. The Devonian Period (419 – 372 mya) featured the Greening of the Continents, and the evolution of forests, which serve as carbon sinks. So, by the time the Pangea Supercontinent formed (about 250 mya), an equatorial continental arrangement did not necessarily mean excessive rock weathering reactions, let alone runaway ice albedo feedback.

Plate tectonics can also influence climate through the formation of mountains (orogeny). Mountains can have profound effects on climate, particularly in their effect on precipitation patterns on the surrounding lands. Higher points on mountains tend to correspond to lower temperatures, so as rising moist warm air makes its way up the windward side of a mountain, it cools down, thus causing its ability to hold water to decline, which in turn leads to precipitation (rain or snow). Consequently, the leeward side of the mountain will often receive less precipitation, and by the time that air reaches the adjacent flat lands, it may not have any moisture left. This is one reason deserts are sometimes located directly next to mountain ranges. Mountains can also affect air circulation patterns great distances away. You can read more about how mountains affect climate and weather patterns at the Mountain Professor.

It’s perfectly natural to wonder what (if any) role continental drift has played in the global warming and climate change we’ve been experiencing currently. The answer is very little (if any). The issue is the RATE at which the current change has been occurring. These processes I’ve described take place over tens or even hundreds of millions of years. The continents tend to move at roughly 2 cm a year, and even faster moving plates rarely exceed 10 cm even on a fast year. The continents haven’t moved all that much in the last few hundred thousand years, and less than meter or so within the last 150 years during which the recent changes have been occurring. So continental drift is ruled out as a principle causal determinant of the current warming. It simply doesn’t induce climatic changes fast enough to explain the rapidity with which the recent warming has been occurring. However, its effects on the planet over the long term can be quite profound indeed.


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