I’m writing in response to Randy Mann’s “Sunspot Activity is Non-Existent” weather column that was published in the Press on Nov. 26 of last year. In the column Mann predicts that a multidecadal period of low sun activity, called a grand solar minimum, would begin in the next year or two. If this were to occur, he says it would trigger a period of planetary cooling. He goes on to describe how less sunspot activity (such as during the Maunder Minimum 300 years ago) caused the European “Little Ice Age,” and how greater sunspot activity was responsible for the Medieval Warm Period. He also cites some recent scientific studies that he says support these ideas. I work in the sciences and this narrative didn’t sound quite right to me, so I took a look at the research studies he mentioned. Here is what I learned — and it isn’t pretty.
In his column Mann quotes NASA’s Martin Mlynczak from his recent article in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics: “we are in a cooling trend … [that, if it continues] could set a space-age record for cold.” Mann implies that Mlynczak is talking about cooling at the planet’s surface caused by decreased sunspot numbers. Actually, this is not what Mlynczak was talking about. Not even close.
To begin with, the quote is not from Mlynczak’s journal article. It came from a short interview with Tony Phillips on the website spaceweatherarchive.com about Mlynczak’s ongoing study of the earth’s upper atmosphere. While a small point, it establishes that Mann gets his information from internet blogs rather than the scientific publications he cites.
Much more troubling is that Mann omits the fact that, in both the article and in the interview, Mlynczak is talking about cooling in the rarified layer of the atmosphere called the thermosphere, not the troposphere. This is hard to miss because the word “thermosphere” occurs 17 times in the article, including once in the title. “Troposphere” isn’t even mentioned. There is simply no way Mann could have missed this. It’s clear that he intended to mislead his readers.
It turns out that Mann wasn’t the only writer to misuse Mlynczak’s interview in an apparent attempt to validate ideas of “global cooling.” Dozens of so-called “climate-denier” blogs and websites, as well as Fox News and UK tabloids The Sun and Metro, all published stories about a coming ice age caused by reduced sunspot frequencies. Upon learning that his words were being misused, Mlynczak pushed back in a subsequent interview on climatefeedback.org, stating “There is no relationship between the natural cycle of cooling and warming in the thermosphere and the weather/climate at Earth’s surface. NASA and other climate researchers continue to see a warming trend in the troposphere, the layer of atmosphere closest to Earth’s surface.”
As a result, Fox News and both British tabloids walked back their stories. Metro updated their story on 11/16/18 to include the following correction:
“This article has been amended since initial publication to remove the erroneous suggestion that the possibly record-breaking cooling of the thermosphere, located over 100 km above the surface of the Earth, would have the effect on the troposphere of ‘a mini Ice Age.’ We are happy to clarify that the record low temperatures reported as part of a natural cycle in solar activity are not inconsistent with current scientific findings of a warming troposphere, and apologise for any contrary impression given.”
Digging a little deeper, I learned that there is an ecosystem of websites and blogs that traffic in climate-denier misinformation. When one site produces a clever meme, or cobbles together a faux story on global cooling, the others quickly appropriate it and propagate it to their readers on their own sites without fact-checking it or even understanding it. It’s the laziest sort of propaganda, and it is probably the main reason why 20 percent of Americans are still skeptical that human activity is causing our climate to warm. Randy Mann himself is apparently a participant in this campaign. His recent writing provides an unfortunate example of this process at work. Here’s an excerpt from his Nov. 26 column:
“The data goes on to state that the new NASA findings are in line with studies released by UC-San Diego [sic] 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.”
Mann’s paragraph is uncannily similar to a story published seven weeks earlier on Oct. 1 by James Murphy of thenewamerican.com (a website owned by the John Birch Society). Murphy wrote:
“The new NASA findings are in line with studies released by UC-San Diego and Northumbria University in Great Britain last year, both of which predict a Grand Solar Minimum in coming decades due to low sunspot activity. Both studies predicted sun activity similar to the Maunder Minimum of the mid-17th to early 18th centuries, which coincided to a time known as the Little Ice Age, during which temperatures were much lower than those of today.”
Mann didn’t just crib Murphy’s material, he cut and pasted it wholesale. While some words were moved around, it wasn’t enough to cover up the plagiarism. Note the erroneous use of a hyphen in “UC-San Diego” that was unthinkingly transferred from the source material to Mann’s column without correction. Mann blindly appropriated this material from a political internet site and built a column around it because it appeared to support his own wrong-headed notion that sunspot variance is the prime driver of Earth’s surface temperatures.
Prior to the industrial revolution, solar cycles may have played small roles in climatic changes, particularly when those cycles extended over long periods, as they do during grand solar minima/maxima. Mann’s conspicuous error is to ignore the significant effect of greenhouse gas forcing on our atmosphere today. For some perspective, solar irradiance (sunspot activity) contributes about 0.2 watts per square meter of warming to the troposphere (IPCC 2011 data). In comparison, anthropogenic emissions add a net +2.3 W/m2 of warming according to IPCC findings. This means that the warming effect from greenhouse gases far outweighs any cooling effect from reduced solar irradiance by a factor of 10.
Dan Lubin, the lead author of the UC San Diego study that Murphy and Mann cited, recently said, “an upcoming [grand minimum] would not stop the current trend of planetary warming but might slow it somewhat. The cooling effect of a grand minimum is only a fraction of the warming effect caused by the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere” (UCSD News Center, 2/5/2018). As you can see, even scientists Mann cites don’t agree with him.
With a little research I’ve found that Randy Mann’s opinions are not based in science. They are based in the musings of internet propagandists with political agendas. By misrepresenting the findings of scientific literature, disregarding the effects of CO2, and by plagiarizing others’ work, Mann’s columns are dishonestly and lazily crafted to cast doubt on the role human activity is having on the well-documented warming that our planet is undergoing. It’s a disservice to all Press readers because anthropogenic climate change is our present reality. Denying it isn’t going to make it go away.
Douglas Harro is a Coeur d’Alene resident and an archaeologist who works for a local consulting firm.