Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect. On a hot summer day in 2015, an Internet article about a possible mini ice age caught on like a wild fire.
It had the making of something compelling and, possibly, believable. The article came from a site that many readers considered trustworthy. The July 2015 story from I f**king Love Science.com (iflscience.com) stated that “solar scientists suggested that the sun may soon enter a period of significantly reduced activity, possibly causing a mini ice age in 2030.”
The idea of a mini ice age within 15 years of the publication was a cause for alarm; especially when all the talk from climatologists was that the world was continuing to warm up due to human activity (better known as anthropogenic global warming). Were we going to be plunged into a cold, dark future instead of the global warming that was predicted all along? This was a question many readers had to contend with.
In the following days—and months—this question would finally be answered, especially from the same publication that made the bold prediction. The answer was that the world wasn’t heading for a mini ice age.
The idea of a coming ice age is nothing new. And in many cases, predictions or theories pertaining to such a future event have been debunked by cold hard facts compiled by scientists. This one, however, has had some staying power, considering that it was (and still is) found on the Internet. Even to this day—long after it had been found to be untrue—many conspiracy theorists, end-timers, and climate change deniers claim it’s true.
Why It Appeared to Be True
There’s no doubt that the mini ice age of 2030 attracted readers on the Internet. The following evidence gave it credence:
- The announcement came from the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales (a real, organization, event and place).
- A real member of the meeting, Professor Valentina Zharkova from the University of Northumbria in England, was named as the source.
- Zharkova was stated that she believed that computer models had helped to confirm this prediction.
- It mentioned an actual event called the Maunder Minimum, in which sunspots were barely created on the sun during a 70-year period between 1645 and 1715—during the time of the last mini ice age.
- And it touched upon the public’s fascination with climate change and mini ice ages.
With such evidence, the media couldn’t ignore it. Even mainstream publications such as England’s The Telegraph had an article entitled “Earth heading for ‘mini ice age’ within 15 years.“ Other British newspapers (such as Daily Mail UK) and internet sites reported the same thing, as well as several conservative American news sites. Even the left leaning Huffington Post had an article on this potentially disastrous event.
Sunspots, Maunder Minimum, and Cold Weather
At the heart of the story is a reference to the Maunder Minimum. This is not the name of a process; it refers to a period of time when sunspots were few and far between. Although this period occurred from 1645 to 1715, the name came from solar astronomer Edward W. Maunder (1851-1928), who discovered this anomaly when studying the records of sunspot observations from that year (Hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu, 2015).
According to the iflscience.com article, the lack of sunspots during this time coincided with “uncharacteristically cold winters.” This period has also been coined as a mini ice age that affected parts of northern Europe and (then) colonial North America.
According to a webpage from NASA (Solar Science), sunspots are dark areas that appear periodically on the surface of the sun. They are often observed to last several days to several weeks, depending on their sizes. They are often found in groups and can be observed within varying cycles of time. It is believed that these are cooler areas on the sun and possibly affected by a magnetic field.
They were first observed in 1610. Astronomers have studied them since then. Due to the consistency of the cycles that they appear in, astronomers have been able to construct models to predict when sunspots will occur.
Additionally, there’s the coincidence of the Maunder Minimum with the mini ice age of the late 17th century. Still, this connection is currently being researched. So far, there is no definitive evidence that a lack of sunspots will create super cold weather on Earth.
The Mini Ice Age Gets Politicized
When searching the subject on Google, two things stood out. The story was almost immediately picked up by several news sites, and nearly all of them were conservative leaning ones. The headlines screamed (in “click-bait” fashion) about the calamity of the coming ice age. Others—those focused on climate change denial—had seemingly morbid and gleeful headlines proclaiming the mini ice age of 2030 will debunk the concept of human-produced global warming.
Even some mainstream news sites (albeit conservative) were not immune. Many snatched it up the moment it was published. Some left-leaning sites took the story into account. One of them was Huffington Post.
Predictably, a few fringe sites that promote “alternative” views on science couldn’t resist re-posting it, as did a small number of end-time Christian fundamentalists who wrote, copied-and-pasted, or linked to the numerous versions of the article from their forum chat sites.
“solar scientists suggested that the sun may soon enter a period of significantly reduced activity, possibly causing a mini ice age in 2030.
— from iflscience.com
A common misperception about the position that climate change deniers have is that they don’t believe the climate is changing. Instead, most of them are opposed to the idea that human activity is a contributor to this. Some of them believe that the change is natural and that it will not be a warming of the planet surface.
The mini ice age of 2030 affirms this belief. In part because:
- It is caused by a natural phenomenon.
- It follows an established natural pattern for emergence and regression indicative of past ice ages.
- It supposedly disproves that the dire warning of manmade climate change supported by an overwhelming majority of climatologists worldwide.
- Knowing this may prevent regulations on industrial countries and the use of specialized taxes (carbon tax) that would curtail the use of materials and practices that contribute to climate change (there are those who also believe that the concept of global warming may give the United Nations or another nation the right to impose rules that would effectively dismantle a country’s autonomy).
With this perception, and with a sector of the population looking for something to fulfill their confirmation bias the matter of climate science, it’s no surprise that the article went viral.
Ice Age of 2030 Quickly Melts
With all the attention the iflscience.com article received, it was inevitable that skeptics, critics, and other news outlets would be viewing it. Among those to question the article’s validity was the Washington Post. Fact-checking sites such as Snopes and Doubtful News also wrote about the story; however, both sites rely on the Washington Post story.
Reporter Chelsea Harvey revealed in an article entitled “No, Earth is heading toward a ‘mini ice age,’” that several key facts were either omitted or misinterpreted in the iflscience article. Some of findings were:
- Professor Valentina Zharkova, whose research had been published the previous year in the Astrophysical Journal, focused on presenting a technique to help understand the “variations in solar radiation.”
- While she mentioned that solar activity may drop significantly between 2030 and 2040 and will lead to condition known as a solar minimum, she never mentioned anything about a mini ice age.
- There were comparisons that the solar minimum of the future will be similar to the Maunder Minimum. But the jump to include that a mini ice age will result from this was made by the reporters that covered Zharkova’s presentation.
- Climate scientists believe the solar minimum will have little effect on the climate and that anthropogenic global warming will negate anything created by the sun's diminished activity.
- Zharkova’s research had yet to be peer reviewed and vetted.
Even iflscience.com realized they may have made a mistake. Soon after they published the first article, they published another one, which stated that the mini ice age accusation was a mistake. But the Internet site did some backtracking in a third article. While they claimed that the mini ice will most likely not happen, they stated that the science was wrong. As the Snopes coverage on the story states, they did this when the truth was that the site inaccurately reported on it.
Final Thoughts? Don't Worry
Although the story was published, it was later refuted by the very source that reported on it. Additionally, a reporter from Washington Post poked holes in the story and revealed that the reporter for the original iflscience.com story misreported or incorrectly speculated upon the information given to him/her.
Still, the original story went viral because there was an eager audience that was looking for something to affirm their beliefs. This, more than anything else, has kept this story alive despite being debunked.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Dean Traylor
jgshorebird on January 14, 2017:
Dean Traylor (author) from Southern California/Spokane, Washington (long story) on January 14, 2017:
jgshorebird, I did a write up on the guy in the Youtube video. In fact, I have link on this article to it. To make a long story short, he's an engineer and won his Nobel in a field unrelated to climate science. Also, he has no prior education in climate science, and he has never viewed the data.
jgshorebird on January 14, 2017:
Good write up. Hopefully there will be neither warming or cooling, but this guy's talk is concerning...
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 14, 2017:
This was very interesting, Dean. Just going on my own personal observations however, I am convinced that the climate is warming. In Australia we are currently experiencing a record heat wave with a number of areas suffering temperatures in excess of 44 degrees Celsius. Last year at least five days were the hottest since temperatures have been recorded for the particular time of year. Even though a lot of things can happen between now and 2030, I think a mini ice age is very unlikely.