By Buster Nicholson, Public Sector Outreach at American Public University
Many people have never heard of the phenomenon known as a “grand solar minimum.” NASA has announced this impending solar trend many times, and some scientists believe it has started and will continue into 2053.
The sun is a huge ball of electrically charged hot gas, and it is by no means steady. Great amounts of energy are emitted from solar flares in varying degrees cyclically. This cyclical emission, known as the solar cycle, is somewhat predictable. One way to track a solar cycle – which lasts approximately 11 years – is by counting the number of sunspots visible on the sun. The beginning of a solar cycle is called a solar minimum when the sun has the fewest sunspots.
Over time, solar activity – and the number of sunspots – increases. The middle of the solar cycle is called the solar maximum (when the sun has the most sunspots). As the cycle ends, it fades back to a solar minimum, and then a new cycle begins.
Because of the potential effects of a grand solar minimum, local and state agencies should prepare for the possibility of agricultural and heating challenges during the next several decades.
According to NASA, the next solar cycle – which is expected to begin this year and reach its maximum in 2025 – will be the weakest of the past 200 years. The maximum of this next cycle – measured in terms of sunspot numbers, a standard measure of solar activity levels – could be 30% to 50% lower than the most recent cycle.
Grand Solar Cycles Have Implications
In addition to these 11-year solar cycles, historic data and ice core samples from Greenland have demonstrated that the sun also experiences grand solar cycles lasting 350 to 400 years. The most recent grand solar minimum occurred during the Maunder Minimum, or mini-ice age. It lasted 65 years from 1645 to 1710 (375 years ago) and caused rivers to freeze, long cold winters, and abnormally cold summers.
Predictions are not exact, of course; some are close while others are wildly inaccurate. Nevertheless, if we are entering a grand solar minimum, it can have important implications for the northern hemisphere on growing vegetation, agriculture, food supplies, and heating needs during the next 30 years.
This global cooling would require inter-governmental efforts to tackle heating and food supply problems for the world’s population.
What Should Local Municipalities Do?
Considering the possible ramifications of being caught by surprise, civic leaders need to familiarize themselves with the problem. Local municipalities are well suited to tackle the challenges of shortened growing seasons and longer winters that a grand solar minimum would produce.
Local officials can encourage activities that will foster greater self-sufficiency regardless of whether the mini ice age predictions are accurate or not. By taking a common sense approach, mayors, city councils and county boards can help residents prepare while keeping resource allocations at a minimum.
Here are some suggestions for local municipalities to begin moving towards greater awareness:
- Encourage local production of food including hydroponics, aquaponics, urban farming, and greenhouse production through education and incentives
- Invest in a seed bank
- Initiate programs and incentives for energy efficiency (i.e., insulation, LED lighting, weatherization, and the like)
- Provide space for and encourage farmers’ markets
- Allocate municipal lots for community gardens
- Wastewater plants take regular temperature readings. Assign someone in wastewater to research and record global as well as local temperature data. Have that individual familiarize himself/herself with the concept of a grand solar minimum and produce an annual report to the council.
- Research your local power production. How would this supply be affected during a grand solar minimum?
- Educate yourselves and your constituents on the possibility of a grand solar minimum.
Taking Common Sense Steps to Educate and Inspire Local Populations
Whether or not the predictions for 30 years of below average temperatures comes to fruition, taking common sense steps to educate and encourage local populations to grow their own food is a noble cause. Councils, mayors, and staff can make a difference by helping citizens gain a better understanding of utility infrastructure and energy efficiency. Municipalities must take the lead in this effort and prepare their constituents for the possibility of colder temperatures for the foreseeable future.
About the Author: Buster Nicholson is a senior manager of Public Sector Outreach at American Public University. He has a Master’s degree in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, an analyst for the United States Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At APU, he works with directors, senior managers, and staff from state and local government entities to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development. He can be reached at ANicholson@apus.edu.