Friday, August 28, 2009

The Unchanging Sun and Earth's Climate

"Sun's Cycle Alters Earth's Climate" (August 27, 2009)

"Weather patterns across the globe are partly affected by connections between the 11-year solar cycle of activity, Earth's stratosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean, a new study finds.

The study could help scientists get an edge on eventually predicting the intensity of certain climate phenomena, such as the Indian monsoon and tropical Pacific rainfall, years in advance.

"The sun is the ultimate source of all the energy on Earth; its rays heat the planet and drive the churning motions of its atmosphere.

"The amount of energy the sun puts out varies over an 11-year cycle (this cycle also governs the appearance of sunspots on the sun's surface as well as radiation storms that can knock out satellites), but that cycle changes the total amount of energy reaching Earth by only about 0.1 percent. A conundrum for meteorologists was explaining whether and how such a small variation could drive major changes in weather patterns on Earth...."

I suppose growing up in the Red River Valley of the North and living in Central Minnesota affects my perceptions. There's a rather obviously direct connection between that 800,000-mile-plus wide naturally occurring fusion reactor in the sky and the local climate. When the sun slides southwards in the sky, things cool off and water becomes a mineral.

Of course, that's the alignment of this patch of Earth's surface, in relation to the sun.

This article discusses what's been discovered about the (known) 11-year cycle that our star goes through, and the effect it has on Earth's climate. Specifically, "...the Sun's impact on two seemingly unrelated regions: water in the tropical Pacific Ocean and air in the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere that runs from around 6 miles (10 km) above Earth's surface to about 31 miles (50 km)...."

the stratosphere and the tropical Pacific Ocean - "seemingly unrelated?" As the article says, they're only six miles apart, separated by a rather turbulent part of this planet's atmosphere. Never mind. Years and years in academia taught me that specialists tend to be, well, specialized. They tend, I think, to forget that the universe doesn't consist of boxes, with what they're interested in one, what other researchers study in another, and lots of nothing in between.

While I'm in a nit-picking mood, one more thing: The sun is "the ultimate source of all the energy on Earth...." ?! The last I heard, cosmologists figure our star is at least second-generation, formed from material blown out of earlier stars - and that the 'ultimate source' of energy and matter is the kick-start this universe got a dozen billion years or so ago.

Again, never mind. Locally, the sun is the source of energy on Earth: including fossil fuels, where energy from sunlight got stored by plants quite a long time ago. Unless, that is, that applies to coal: and petroleum is something else.1

Bottom line: this is a pretty good article about one facet of a subject that's fairly new.

I remember how some my textbooks said that Galileo and company were persecuted something dreadful because they said that the moon and the planets weren't perfect and unchanging. Looks like we're going through a learning experience now, discovering that the sun changes - and that when the sun changes, Earth changes. Whoda thunk?
1 There's some rather interesting research being done, looking into the possibility of abiotic organic synthesis being involved in the origins Earth's petroleum - and maybe life. ("Sloan Deep Carbon Cycle Workshop Summary Report" Geophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution (May 15-17, 2008)

Unlike the college geography professor I had, who knew that continental drift didn't exist because he said it didn't, I'm willing to assume that what people knew about how the universe works a thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, and ten years ago isn't quite as complete a picture as what we have today - and that there might, maybe, possibly, be more to learn.

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