Solar Glower

Published July 15, 2015

NEWS:   Several articles claimed Earth is headed for a "mini-Ice Age" around 2030, but that assertion appears to be an exaggeration.

On 13 July 2015, the popular site "I Fucking Love Science" (IFLS) published an article titled "Thanks to Reduced Solar Activity, We Could Be Heading for a Mini Ice Age in 2030":

Life on Earth has always been dependent on the conditions of the Sun, so scientists spend a lot of time studying its activity. A recent announcement from solar scientists suggests that the Sun may soon enter a period of significant reduced activity, possibly causing a mini ice age by 2030 — just 15 years from now.

The model has shown to have a 97% accuracy when mapping the past movements of sunspots, using data of solar cycles from 1976 to 2008. And if this reliability continues, then the model also has some alarming predictions for the future: a mini ice age sometime around the 2030s.

The article referenced above (originating with a site many Facebook users visit to obtain science news) and a number of similar other pieces caused interest in the term "Little Ice Age" to spike on social media sites. But just as the topic trended, it also became the focus of critical assessment (with, unfortunately, much of that assessment coming after interest in a "mini ice age" peaked).

A 14 July 2015 Washington Post article explained some of the factors that led to widespread misinterpretation of the involved science:

Though University of Northumbria mathematics professor Valentina Zharkova, who led the sunspot research, did find that the magnetic waves that produce sunspots (which are associated with high levels of solar activity) are expected to counteract one another in an unusual way in the coming years, the press release about her research mentions nothing about how that will affect the Earth’s climate. Zharkova never even used the phrase “mini ice age.” Meanwhile, several other recent studies of a possible solar minimum have concluded that whatever climate effects the phenomenon may have will be dwarfed by the warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

The Washington Post added another important bit of context to the story, noting that "Zharkova's findings have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, so her conclusions haven’t been vetted and refined." On 14 July 2015, IFLS followed up with an article titled "There Probably Won't Be a “Mini Ice Age” In 15 Years," which backpeddled claims made in the original:

Since our article yesterday about how reduced solar activity could lead to the next little ice age, IFLScience has spoken to the researcher who started the furor: Valentina Zharkova. She announced the findings from her team's research on solar activity last week at the Royal Astronomical Society. She noted that her team didn't realize how much of an impact their research would have on the media, and that it was journalists (including ourselves) who picked up on the possible impact on the climate. However, Zharkova says that this is not a reason to dismiss this research or the predictions about the environment.

“We didn't mention anything about the weather change, but I would have to agree that possibly you can expect it,” she informed IFLScience.

On 15 July 2015 IFLS published another article (this time titled "No, We Aren’t Heading Into a ‘Mini Ice Age'") which blamed science (and not media inaccuracy) for the widespread misreporting:

Wouldn’t it be great if scientists could make their minds up? One minute they’re telling us our planet is warming up due to human activity and we run the risk of potentially devastating environmental change. Next, they’re warning that the Earth is heading for a mini ice age in the next 15 years.

As noted in the Washington Post's 14 July 2015 article (linked and excerpted above), the phrase "mini ice age" did not come from scientists. Moreover, Zharkova's commentary was not peer-reviewed or published prior to its appearance in multiple media outlets.

Kim LaCapria is a former writer for Snopes.

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