Local Brewery Owner
in 1859, accelerated an explanation for changes in climate

by Duncan Walker

Solar Flare
An arching solar flare

When we wrote the previous article 'Observing the Heavens from Brentford' we referred to the excellent book "The Sun Kings" by Stuart Clark (2007), (available at Amazon). The book is about the Brentford Brewery owner and father of Solar Astronomy, Richard Carrington and there is an interesting explanation of how sunspots have influenced our weather.

After Richard Carrington first observed solar flares in 1859, other astronomers then focused more on trying to understand the effects of the sun on the Earth's climate. More attention was paid to the previous research by the great astronomer in England, William Herschel, who in 1800 compared sunspot activity with the impact on weather on Earth. He needed some quantitative data on Earth to compare the sunspot activity with and used wheat prices! He found that a dearth of sunspot activity corresponded to higher wheat prices, which also corresponded with poorer weather and thus poorer harvests that created higher prices. He was ridiculed at the time.

Sunspot activity

Thames Frost Fair
Thames Frost Fair, 1683-84, by Thomas Wyke

The sunspot activity, historically was recorded together with observations about weather and certain dramatic climate changes had occurred such as the Roman Warm Period (250 B.C. to 450 A.D.), the Medieval Warm Period (900 A.D. to 1300 A.D.), the Little Ice Age (1350 A.D. to 1850 A.D.). From the 1500s to the 1800s, much of Europe and North America were plunged into what came to be called the little ice age.

The coolest part of this cold spell coincided with a 75-year period beginning in 1645 when astronomers detected almost no sunspots on the sun, a time now referred to as the Maunder Minimum.

Ice core samples

Ice core
Ice core sampled for cosmic dust

Today's scientists can measure solar activity in history by studying ice core samples taken from the Arctic and Antarctic. They measure the level of nitrates which have fallen as a result of chemical reaction in the atmosphere as protons from the solar flares penetrate the Earths magnetic field.

Cosmic Rays

Cosmic Clouds
Clouds over Brentford Dock

In the early 20th century cosmic rays were discovered, which cascade onto the Earth continually. They originate from exploding stars and are composed of sub atomic particles similar to those from the Sun but carry much more energy. When they strike the upper levels of Earth's atmosphere they generate showers of other particles which seed low-lying clouds that reflect some of the Sun's radiation back into space. The number of cosmic rays reaching the Earth is dependent on the strength of the solar magnetic field. When this magnetic field is stronger (as evidenced by larger numbers of sunspots), more of the rays are deflected, fewer clouds are formed and so the Earth heats up; whereas when the field is weaker, the Earth cools down.

The Kew Observatory

Kew Observatory
Kew Observatory today

Kew Observatory also played its part in developing the knowledge about the impact of the Sun on the Earth.

The Observatory is just across the river from Brentford Dock on the southern boundary of Kew Gardens and offered solace for Richard Carrington on his visits to the Brentford Brewery. While attending business at the brewery in 1859, he crossed the Thames and visited the Kew Observatory, where Warren De La Rue was making huge progress in the new technique of solar photography, using the photohelioscope instrument. This was a key moment, when he discussed with Balfour Stewart, the director of the observatory, his observations of the solar flares. He found that the observatory's magnetic readings coincided with the time of Carrington's observed solar flares and thus was a clear sign that the sun was affecting the Earth through magnetism.

Solar activity today

Solar flare leaps towards Earth's magnetic field

There is a superb solar flare film clip which occurred this week on Monday June 6th 2011 taken by the NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory and reported on the Space Weather website.

NASA Science News says that In 2008, the solar cycle moved into the quietest period in nearly a hundred years, when sunspots all but vanished, solar flares subsided, and the Sun was eerily quiet. Quiet periods on the Sun occur about every 11 years, a natural part of the solar cycle. This particular solar minimum, however, was lasting longer than usual, but on Jan 4th 2011 a sunspot heralded the next solar cycle, 'Solar Cycle 24' with activity building.

It looks like we are in for a bumpy ride in the next few years with a peak in solar activity due in 2012. Scientists warn that the London 2012 Olympic Games could be hit!

The European Space Agency website is a useful resource.

And today, we have news of the NASA's Voyager probes, launched in 1977, which are reaching the heliopause, the edge of the Sun's influence at 14 billion km from Earth. This is where interstellar space begins and new knowledge will be gained. "The findings are significant as we will have to change our view on how the Sun interacts with particles, fields and gases from other stars, and this has consequences that reach down to Earth," commented Arik Posner, Nasa's Voyager programme scientist.

From Brentford Brewery to Solar Weather

Carrington observatory
Richard Carrington's observatory at Redhill Surrey

Today, this focus on solar activity is becoming very topical in explaining some disturbances in our weather and communications. Today, the majority of scientists agree that post industrial-man is now the major culprit in causing the recent global warming, through increased production of green-house gases.

There are also people who are sceptical about man-made Climate Change and prefer to attribute Climate Change Solar Variation. An example of this camp are the 'Climate Realists'.

It was Richard Carrington, while commuting between Brentford Brewery and his private observatory in Redhill, Surrey, who first observed solar flares resulting in an intense study of the sun's effects on our climate.


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Is the Sunspot Cycle About to Stop?

There is an excellent opportunity, at the moment, for scientists to research and observe if and how much solar activity can dramatically influence temperatures on Earth today.

In an article in Sky & Telescope - 'Is the Sunspot Cycle About to Stop?' it reports of a meeting this month of the American Astronomical Society's Solar Physics Division, where four scientists, affiliated with the National Solar Observatory, have posted three papers showing separate evidence that the solar cycle may be about to flatten right out.

These solar scientists are claiming that the 11-year solar-activity cycle, may be on the verge of a drastic change. If this proves correct we could be entering a phase of cooler temperatures on earth.

You might not have been so far wrong first time

Piers Corbyn, an independent long-range weather forecaster and general meteorological maverick, makes long-range forecasts based on what he thinks the Sun is going to do. He isn't always right but he got the cold, snowy December spot on when others were forecasting a mild winter and the Met Office had no clear idea what was going to happen. Regarding this summer he has publicly hinted that it's just as well Wimbledon now has a roof, so draw your own conclusions. (BTW, the author of the book about Richard Carrington, my colleague Stuart Clark, also subscribes to the view that it's solar activity not CO2 that drives climate change.)

You can follow Piers and his regular jibes at the Met Office on weatheraction.com/

Reply to: Interesting, but a bit provocative

When we referred in the title to Richard Carrington having accelerated an explanation for climate change, we didn't intend to mean that this was the only factor in changing climate. We do agree with Pete Burden that human causes are now seen as a contributor to the overall climate change.

Interesting, but a bit provocative

Suggesting this as an alternative to human causes of global warming would also suggest that every single scientific body of national or international standing has failed to consider solar flares as a cause. That seems pretty unlikely to me.

As, since 2007, and despite much interest in the subject world-wide not a single scientific body of national or international standing has rejected the findings of human-induced effects on climate change.

Plenty of individuals have alternative views but not one body of any standing!