The declining solar activity currently being observed will increase the likelihood of colder winters in Europe by 15%, say researchers in the UK.

The climate of the British Isles and continental Europe is heavily influenced by the north Atlantic jet stream. While solar activity has very little influence on the global climate, it can affect the North Atlantic jet stream and therefore the regional climate in Europe.

“Our region is particularly sensitive to solar activity, especially in winter,” Mike Lockwood from the University of Reading, UK, told environmentalresearchweb. While the effect is small when compared with the effect of anthropogenic climate change, it is still significant enough to cause an increase in the likelihood of colder winters, providing all other factors remain the same. There is a 10% chance that in the next 40 years the sun will return to a state last seen during the Maunder minimum of solar activity (1650–1700), which could make cold winters up to five times more likely. Considering all possibilities for how the sun will evolve, the overall likelihood of colder winters in the UK is set to rise by 15%.”

But Lockwood stresses that recent press reports that we are heading for a “little ice age” are completely inconsistent with his research because temperatures in summer are likely to remain the same or possibly even increase. “Even for winters, the effect of solar activity on the north Atlantic jet stream will essentially be to re-distribute temperatures in Northern Europe,” said Lockwood. “For example, our previous research has shown that the likelihood of warmer winters in Greenland will increase while the likelihood of colder winters in the UK will increase.”

Lockwood and his colleagues were able to carry out their research because of the Central England Temperature (CET) data series – the world’s longest instrumental temperature record. This extends back to 1659, around the beginning of the last Maunder minimum in solar activity. They combined this data with data on cosmogenic isotopes – isotopes of carbon and beryllium that are created on earth by galactic cosmic rays and stored in terrestrial reservoirs such as tree trunks and ice sheets.

“Many researchers believe solar activity effects just get lost in the noise of climate variability but, by combining temperature data with isotope data, we have found that there is some, if limited, forecast ability in the effect of solar activity on climate in the UK,” said Lockwood.

The team published the study in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).