The missing sunspots: Is this the big chill? Scientists are baffled by what they’re seeing on the Sun’s surface – nothing at all. And this lack of activity could have a major impact on global warming. David Whitehouse investigates:
The disappearance of sunspots happens every few years, but this time it's gone on far longer than anyone expected - and there is no sign of the Sun waking
Could the Sun play a greater role in recent climate change than has been believed? Climatologists had dismissed the idea and some solar scientists have been reticent about it because of its connections with those who those who deny climate change. But now the speculation has grown louder because of what is happening to our Sun. No living scientist has seen it behave this way. There are no sunspots.
“This is the lowest we’ve ever seen. We thought we’d be out of it by now, but we’re not,” says Marc Hairston of the University of Texas. And it’s not just the sunspots that are causing concern. There is also the so-called solar wind – streams of particles the Sun pours out – that is at its weakest since records began. In addition, the Sun’s magnetic axis is tilted to an unusual degree. “This is the quietest Sun we’ve seen in almost a century,” says NASA solar scientist David Hathaway. But this is not just a scientific curiosity. It could affect everyone on Earth and force what for many is the unthinkable: a reappraisal of the science behind recent global warming.
Our Sun is the primary force of the Earth’s climate system, driving atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns. It lies behind every aspect of the Earth’s climate and is, of course, a key component of the greenhouse effect. But there is another factor to be considered. When the Sun has gone quiet like this before, it coincided with the earth cooling slightly and there is speculation that a similar thing could happen now. If so, it could alter all our predictions of climate change, and show that our understanding of climate change might not be anywhere near as good as we thought.
Sunspots are dark, cooler patches on the Sun’s surface that come and go in a roughly 11-year cycle, first noticed in 1843. They have gone away before. They were absent in the 17th century – a period called the “Maunder Minimum” after the scientist who spotted it. Crucially, it has been observed that the periods when the Sun’s activity is high and low are related to warm and cool climatic periods. The weak Sun in the 17th century coincided with the so-called Little Ice Age. The Sun took a dip between 1790 and 1830 and the earth also cooled a little. It was weak during the cold Iron Age, and active during the warm Bronze Age. Recent research suggests that in the past 12,000 years there have been 27 grand minima and 19 grand maxima.
Throughout the 20th century the Sun was unusually active, peaking in the 1950s and the late 1980s. Dean Pensell of NASA, says that, “since the Space Age began in the 1950s, solar activity has been generally high. Five of the ten most intense solar cycles on record have occurred in the last 50 years.” The Sun became increasingly active at the same time that the Earth warmed. But according to the scientific consensus, the Sun has had only a minor recent effect on climate change.
Many scientists believe that the Sun was the major player on the Earth’s climate until the past few decades, when the greenhouse effect from increasing levels of carbon dioxide overwhelmed it. Computer models suggest that of the 0.5C increase in global average temperatures over the past 30 years, only 10-20 per cent of the temperature variations observed were down to the Sun, although some said it was 50 per cent.
But around the turn of the century things started to change. Within a few years of the Sun’s activity starting to decline, the rise in the Earth’s temperature began to slow and has now been constant since the turn of the century. This was at the same time that the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide carried on rising. So, is the Sun’s quietness responsible for the tail-off in global warming and if not, what is?
There are some clues as to what’s going on. Although at solar maxima there are more sunspots on the Sun’s surface, their dimming effect is more than offset by the appearance of bright patches on the Sun’s disc called faculae – Italian for “little torches”. Overall, during an 11-year solar cycle the Sun’s output changes by only 0.1 per cent, an amount considered by many to be too small a variation to change much on earth. But there is another way of looking it. While this 0.1 per cent variation is small as a percentage, in terms of absolute energy levels it is enormous, amounting to a highly significant 1.3 Watts of energy per square metre at the Earth. This means that during the solar cycle’s rising phase from solar minima to maxima, the Sun’s increasing brightness has the same climate-forcing effect as that from increasing atmospheric greenhouse gasses. There is recent research suggesting that solar variability can have a very strong regional climatic influence on Earth – in fact stronger than any man-made greenhouse effect across vast swathes of the Earth. And that could rewrite the rules.
No one knows what will happen or how it will effect our understanding of climate change on Earth. If the Earth cools under a quiet Sun, then it may be an indication that the increase in the Sun’s activity since the Little Ice Age has been the dominant factor in global temperature rises. That would also mean that we have overestimated the sensitivity of the Earth’s atmosphere to an increase of carbon dioxide from the pre-industrial three parts per 10,000 by volume to today’s four parts per 10,000. Or the sun could compete with global warming, holding it back for a while. For now, all scientists can do, along with the rest of us, is to watch and wait.
British children to be taught to speak properly amid growing 'word poverty'
Children will have lessons on how to speak proper English in formal settings, under an overhaul of the curriculum for 7 to 11-year-olds. The proposals, from Sir Jim Rose, a former head of Ofsted, place a strong emphasis on teaching children to “recognise when to use formal language, including standard spoken English”. They include how to moderate tone of voice and use appropriate hand gestures and eye contact.
The reforms come in response to concern that an increasing number of children suffer from “word poverty” and are unable to string together a coherent sentence by the time that they start school. A government-backed report by the Conservative MP John Bercow found last year that in some areas up to 50 per cent of the school-age population had speech and language difficulties.
There are also growing demands from employers for schools to emphasise skills in spoken English, amid evidence that some school-leavers lack confidence in basic tasks such as speaking confidently on the telephone to a stranger. A draft copy of the Rose reforms, seen by The Times, says that primary children should learn to “adjust what they say according to the formality of the context and the needs of their audience”.
Sir Jim has been appointed by ministers to overhaul the primary curriculum in response to concerns that it was overly prescriptive and “cluttered”. His review is expected to be published on Thursday. Yesterday he said that schools should pay serious attention to speaking and listening as subjects “in their own right”. This would help children from poor homes, who may start school already having to catch up because they do not have the right vocabulary. This in turn can have severe effects on their ability to learn and make friends.
“I will be making a very strong play on this. There’s more and more evidence coming from research and practice to establish the need for support for the children from certain backgrounds that don’t offer the right kind of development of speaking and listening. It needs to be put right,” he told The Times. He added that his recommendations will build on the £40 million Every Child a Talker programme launched last year to provide intensive language support for nursery-age children.
Anna Wright, director of Children’s Services at Reading Council, which has introduced intensive language support in its primary schools, said: “Children from poor homes have smaller vocabularies, which don’t contain many abstract ideas. “This makes it more difficult for them to make connections between words and to move to abstract concepts and to higher-order thinking about causes, effects and consequences.”
Other sections of the review will recommend that information technology classes are given as much prominence as literacy and numeracy. As well as classic fiction and poetry, children should study texts drawn from websites, film, newspapers, magazines, leaflets and advertisements, as well as “wikis and twitters”.
British pupils aged 11 compelled to learn about homosexual sex
Campaigners say the sex education review for children needs to go farther
Compulsory sex and relationships lessons for 11-year-old children are to include classroom discussions on gay unions and civil partnerships. Secondary pupils will learn about contraception and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), while primary school children will learn about their bodies and friendships, a review of sex education has concluded.
The review was ordered in October after ministers announced that sex and relationships education (SRE) lessons should be made compulsory to help primary and secondary pupils to “navigate the complexities of modern life” and to ensure that children learnt their sex education from the classroom, not the playground.
The changes to personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) classes mark the culmination of decades of campaigning by sexual health organisations, who believe that the patchy nature of sex education in schools is helping to fuel a record level of teenage pregnancy and STIs in England.
Last night campaigners welcomed the review, conducted by Sir Alasdair MacDonald, a secondary head teacher in Tower Hamlets, East London. However, they suggested that its recommendations did not go far enough.
Although the new PSHE classes will be compulsory from 2011, faith schools in England will be given licence to provide sex and relationships education within the context of their own values. This could mean that children will be taught that their religion regards the use of contraceptives as a sin. Parents will also have a legal right to withdraw children from SRE classes. Currently one in 2,500 parents withdraws children from nonstatutory sex education classes.
Sexual health charities warned that allowing parents to opt out, even if it involved only a small number, was an infringement of young people’s rights. Julie Bentley, chief executive of fpa, formerly the Family Planning Association, said that while religion and sex education were not incompatible, schools should not be allowed to interpret the report “to mean they can tell young people, for example, that contraception isn’t a matter of choice – it is simply wrong”.
She added: “We would like further assurances that when SRE becomes statutory, all schools will teach it responsibly, ethically and factually as a core subject.”
Simon Blake, national director of the sexual health charity Brook, said: “Young people need to understand the law – that you can get contraception, that you can have an abortion – and understand the health benefits of practising safer sex. It would not be right for anyone to tell them that this is wrong, but it is OK for them to be told that some people believe it is wrong.”
The Catholic Education Service for England and Wales welcomed the opt-out. “This is a crucial right in a community where parents are the first educators of their children, because parents are responsible for bringing up their children, and not the State,” it said.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, accepted Sir Alasdair’s review, subject to a four-month consultation that will look again at the content of SRE lessons, but told MPs that he would keep the right of nonacceptance under review.
Sir Alasdair said that making PSHE compulsory would help the quality of teaching. “There is probably greater variability in teaching and learning in this subject than in most other subjects,” he said.
British "equality" law promotes inequality
The U.S. Democrats are pretty good at giving misleading names to their bills but the British are learning fast:
"Employers will be given legal powers to discriminate in favour of women and black job candidates under a controversial equality shake-up. Harriet Harman unveiled plans for firms to choose them ahead of equally-qualified white male applicants without risking being sued. Miss Harman, Labour's deputy leader, hopes to boost the proportion of female and ethnic minority staff, as well as pushing more of them into senior roles.
But the Equality Bill, which brings together nine major laws, yesterday prompted grave concern that white men could miss out unfairly on jobs. Business chiefs and opposition MPs reacted furiously to the plans, which have been described as 'socialism in one clause'. They warned it would burden firms struggling to cope with the worst recession in 60 years with more red tape and leave them open to 'costly and damaging' exployment tribunals.