Berman will be joining us as Thursday’s lunch speaker on January 30, 2014, where he will discuss the sun’s erratic behavior, its potential effect on our weather, and much more.
A: The phrase just popped into my head: the sun breathes in and out, and has a pulse roughly every 11 years, plus additional cycles of complex oscillations. Though it is a much bigger item than a human being, it seems like a heartbeat especially because its own fortunes are so affected by its rhythms.
These rhythms affect us personally through weather and our health. In my lunch talk I’ll take a few minutes to sneak in some of these effects and startling facts. Did you know the sun is 4 million tons lighter every second? That’s not just an abstraction. As it changes part of itself into the heat and light we’re so dependent upon, it’s really sacrificing itself. It’s almost enough to make one paranoid except that it has so much mass that this loss will not make a substantial difference for the next five billion years.
Q: Does solar output variability have the potential to significantly affect our climate?
A: Sure. What is really noticeable, and almost scary, is that the sun is behaving now in a way that has not been witnessed in the past century: Usually a solar minimum (as the one that just concluded a couple of years ago) means that the number of sunspots decline, not that they virtually stop cold which is what happened; moreover, its normal 11-year cycle stretched to 14-years; and then the long-awaited solar maximum barely materialized this past year
It seems increasingly likely that the sun has entered a prolonged period of reduced activity which definitely affects us on earth. The last time there was an extreme event was during the reign of Louis XIV of France. That was a period of great hardship: Colonies in Greenland and Iceland couldn’t survive and thriving landscapes became frozen and white. Nobody knows if this is heading toward a similar occurrence, or what exactly causes it, but we know that the Sun’s “heartbeat” can indeed stop for prolonged periods.
We need to separate out the real connections between the sun’s rhythms and phenomena on earth, and those effects that are mere coincidences. Humans excel at noting simultaneous events and assuming they’re correlative rather than being mere coincidences. Take, for example, the lengths of women’s skirts in fashion, and the rabbit population of Australia, which have long seemed to change in sync with the sunspot cycle. Are these really determined by the sun? Among the actual connections you’ll find the position and strength of the Gulf Stream, which changes depending on the solar cycle.
It’s worth a few minutes to explore some of the amazing new discoveries about the sun, and its current bizarre behavior. I intend to leave everybody with some “gee-wiz!” information during Thursday’s lunch.
Q: How might we see the effects of sunspot cycles in our daily lives?
A: Sunspots change the amount of cosmic rays that enter the solar system from the rest of the universe. These rays are actually mostly protons — broken bits of atoms that can penetrate our bodies. During the strong part of a solar cycle the sun creates a shield that blocks many of these particles from reaching our planet. But at times like this, when the sun cycle is weak, these high-speed deep-space particles arrive at increased numbers and intensity. This doesn’t suddenly change your day, but it does have a cumulative effect on our atmosphere, and on things like the production of carbon 14.
What humans are doing by throwing carbon into the air creates one effect on the climate, but another major player is the sun. The sun can add to our troubles or partially ameliorate them. What the sun has been doing recently is giving us a break; it is counteracting global warming to a degree.
We now know that light affects us more than we imagined. How the sun protects us is through the production of Vitamin D, a powerful anti-cancer agent. I will spend time talking about the sun as our friend, not just as counteracting global warming, but also on a personal level. In recent years and decades, children play outdoors less after school, and spend more time indoors, and many medical researchers are worried about this reduced skin exposure to sunlight, exacerbated by the over-use of sunblock thanks to the skin cancer scares of late. But light is important to health; as one example, two separate studies show that breast cancer is strongly linked with women who because of working night shifts or sleeping in a room exposed to bright city streetlight streaming in, fail to experience a normal daily darkness and light cycle.