One of the indicators that Cliff and I look at when determining long-range forecasts, especially for the winter seasons are sunspots, or storms on the sun. When the sun is going through an active cycle, there will be many sunspots, which can trigger solar flares that can ultimately create disruptions with satellite communications as well as increase the Earth’s temperature. However, when the number of solar storms decrease, then we could see a drop of our planet’s temperature, as was the case in 2007 and 2008.
The number of sunspots, or storms on the sun, have now become few and far between. From Oct. 18 through Nov. 12, there were no sunspots reported on the sun. Then there was minimal activity beginning on Nov. 13 that continued through the 19th, before returning to zero once again.
We are currently in sun’s cycle of a “solar minima.” Forecasters expect this current sunspot cycle, which swings like a pendulum between high and low sunspot numbers every 11 years, to reach its low point around 2019 to 2020.
“We are in a cooling trend,” said Martin Mllynczk of NASA’s Langley Research Center in the September issue of the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics. Based on their data, if the current low sun activity continues for at least the next several years, it could set a space-age record for cold.
The data goes on to state that the new NASA findings are in line with studies released by UC-San Diego and Northumbria University in Great Britain. Both predicted a grand solar minimum in coming decades due to predicted lower sunspot activity. If this were to occur, these conditions could be similar to ones reported in the mid-17th and early 18th Century, known as the Maunder Minimum.
Between 1645 and 1715, there were very little sunspots, or solar storms. During those 70 years of the Maunder Minimum, the face of the sun was nearly blank of sunspots and broke away from its normal 11-year cycle. In one 30-year period, astronomers only observed approximately 50 sunspots, compared to a more typical 40,000 to 50,000 solar storms.
That time in history was also called “The Little Ice Age” as Europe was dealing with extreme cold and the Thames River in London froze solid. They even held winter fairs on the ice. Glaciers also advanced in the Alps and the northern sea ice expanded. By the early 18th Century, for reasons no one understands, the sun returned to its familiar 11-year sunspot cycle.
Prior to that period of extreme cold was the Medieval Warm Period (approximately 800-1300 A.D.). The sun was relatively active in terms of sunspot activity. It was warm enough to allow the mighty Vikings to colonize a lush, verdant Greenland. Britain was also a wine-producing country. Tomatoes, grapes and other weather-sensitive plants grew wild in now frigid Labrador in northeastern Canada.
There may be a correlation between the lack of sunspots and our weather. In 2007-08, sunspot activity was practically non-existent. The big decrease in solar activity was blamed, at least in part, for the harsh winter of 2007-08 across our region and other parts of the northern U.S. In Coeur d’Alene, Cliff measured an all-time record 172.9 inches of snow for that season. The following year was also a big one for snow as 145.6 inches was measured.
Since we’re coming into a new “solar minima” cycle, it’s uncertain if this one will end in the early 2020s and how big of a rebound in sunspot activity we’ll see in as we get toward the mid 2020s. Based on the low activity and the possibility of a strong cooler than normal La Nina sea-surface temperature pattern, Cliff says there is a chance for big snows, perhaps up to 200 inches in one season in Coeur d’Alene, during the winter of 2019-20 or 2020-21.
In terms of our local weather, the big ridge of high pressure that has kept much of the West Coast much drier than normal has finally weakened and allowing moisture in from the Pacific. Much-needed rainfall did fall across California over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, which greatly helped the horrible fire situation. Although, the rainfall is greatly needed, too much moisture in a short period of time will likely lead to mudslides.
Here in North Idaho, above-normal moisture totals are expected as more storms from the Pacific Ocean should bring more rain and snow to our area. With warmer-than-normal sea-surface temperatures across much of the Pacific Ocean, air masses should also be milder as we’ll likely see more rain than snow in the lower elevations over the next several weeks. However, it’s always a temperature thing in Coeur d’Alene and a few degrees colder would make a difference and change the rain to snow.
Despite the forecast for a milder winter, there is still a chance that we’ll have a fourth year in a row with a white Christmas. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, Cliff discovered that when we have three years in a row with a white Christmas, there has always been a fourth.
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Contact Randy Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org