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Perhaps it is no coincidence that Russian scientists warn of an impending ice age.

In Germany, a month is drawing to a close which people will not forget that quickly. At least in the north and east of the country, it could be the coldest and especially the snowiest March since the beginning of the detailed records began about 100 years ago. In the Brandenburg village Coschen, the thermometer dropped to minus 19 degrees in the night to Sunday – it was the coldest place in Germany. Even though it was milder in the south, the first three weeks of March were still about three and a half degrees colder than the long-term average of this month, and the few days until its end will not change anything essential, especially since the meteorologists do not expect much higher temperatures until Easter.

In calculating the total meteorological winter (December to February), the measurements from March are not even taken into account, but the three winter months taken together were about half a degree colder than “normal.” And dark anyway.

Ornithologists have reported that migratory birds coming from the south have turned back. Others, equipped with sharper senses, remained longer than usual in the Mediterranean. The flowering of plants is delayed, and the crocus, which formed in the parks during the few mild days earlier this month, disappeared for weeks under 20 cm thick snow cover. The construction industry and other industries fear delays, losses and other cost burdens. The tenant association Hamburg expects that after the winter an increase of 100 Euros will be payable for renters of a 70 square meter apartment in the next heating bill; for public buildings, the taxpayers will be charged accordingly. Several times dozens of flights, such as to and from Frankfurt, had to be cancelled due to heavy snow, highly unusual for March.

Globally, temperature extremes balance each other most of the times, but in recent weeks one has to look very closely in order to identify particularly warm climes in our latitudes. Japan, for example, reports a relatively early onset of spring. On the other hand, the north-eastern United States suffered from snow chaos, in New York, many flights had to be cancelled too in mid-March because of almost half a meter of fresh snow. In the European part of northern Russia is has been particularly cold; rarely has the weather map been as deep dark blue over such large areas.

The blue colour projects far into our regions. Perhaps it is no coincidence, therefore, that Russian scientists warn of an impending ice age. Vladimir Bashkin and Rauf Galiulin have only recently discovered this risk in a study. The two biogeochemists – a discipline which includes the exploration of the Earth’s atmosphere – have drawn up the paper for the Research Institute VNIIGAZ of the Gazprom Group, an address that is surely not entirely free of lobbying interests. Their reasoning, however, is based on findings that the gain more and more ground in the independent science: The activity of the sun has weakened significantly, according to some experts to a degree as during the “Little Ice Age”, several hundred years ago.

However, it is not a variation of the warming sunshine, which would not be sufficient to explain climate changes during past centuries. However, the changes in solar ionizing radiation emissions, the so-called solar wind, could be very influential with regards the long-term development of Earth’s temperatures. These fluctuations are associated with the ups and downs of the number of sunspots. The sunspots can be observed from Earth, they are recorded since at least since their discovery by the German-British astronomer William Herschel in the 18th century. Herschel found a relationship between the number of sunspots and climate impacts, namely the good and bad years in agriculture. His theory of the “hog cycle” was long derided because an explanation was missing – until it was found a few years ago.

Meanwhile, there are other methods to track the variations of the solar wind than by sunspots; by isotopes in drilling cores, sediments, or millennia old ice. And lo and behold: there are clear parallel curves between the changes in solar activity and, a few years or decades later, global temperature – at least insofar as it is possible to retrospectively ascertain temperatures. Taking account of these delays, the ups and downs of temperatures during the 20th century and until the beginning of the 21st century can be explained from sun, whose activity in the second half of the last century was at its highest rate since the medieval climate optimum, which was about one degree warmer than today.

Several institutions, among others the nuclear research center CERN in Geneva and at the state-run National Space Institute of Denmark, are trying to find a physical explanation for this significant relationship. Through a series of tests, researchers were able, to some extent, to form a picture of how the ionizing solar wind affects cloud formation and thus the temperature of the Earth. The delay could be well explained by the buffering effect of the water masses in the oceans. One can only wonder how the work of the scientists, who study these connections, will be taken into account by the fifth “Assessment Report” of the IPCC, which will be published September. So far, it looks as if they will not play any role since the scientists who view man-made carbon dioxide emissions as almost the sole driver of the climate will set the tone.

However, the one-dimensional explanation of CO2 has lately been questioned by other studies, too. For example by a scientifically approved work by two climate researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle (USA), published in the February issue of the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” – one of the world’s most prestigious scientific magazines.  The two researchers came to the following conclusion: “The anthropogenic contribution to global warming in the second half of the 20th century has been probably been overestimated by a factor of two”, i.e. only half as large as expected. According to their study, the currents and pressure conditions in the oceans have been fundamentally underestimated.

A study by researchers at the University of Oslo comes to a similar conclusion and will be published in the next few weeks. According to the study, even a doubling of CO2 by 2050, which hardly anyone expects, will not have the dramatic effects which the IPCC predicts. According to the study, the influence of natural factors, such as clouds and volcanic eruptions, is much stronger than previously thought.

So far studies with similar conclusions, though published in peer reviewed scientific journals, are mostly ignored by the media. But they are published more frequently in science journals lately. The current extreme weather does only support them to a limited degree; weather is fickle. However, this is also correct for any contrary weather conditions. In any case, from the perspective of this winter it can be said with certainty: summer is approaching. Also predictable is the next very, very hot one. The only question remaining is this: Just when will it happen?

Translation Phillip Mueller

Die Welt, 25 March 2013