Editor's note (3 March 2020): The information presented in this article is outdated; it received additional scrutiny when it was first reported in 2015, with experts correctly pointing out that humans have a bigger impact on Earth's climate than the Sun. You can read more about these criticisms in this article from 15 July 2015.
Original (13 Jul 2015): A new model that predicts the solar cycles more accurately than ever before has suggested that solar magnetic activity will drop by 60 percent between 2030 and 2040, which means in just 15 years' time, Earth could sink into what researchers are calling a mini ice age.
Such low solar activity has not been seen since the last mini ice age, called the Maunder Minimum, which plunged the northern hemisphere in particular into a series of bitterly cold winters between 1645 and 1715.
The prediction is based on what's known as the Sun's '11-year heartbeat'. The Sun's magnetic activity is not the same year in year out, it fluctuates over a cycle that lasts between 10 and 12 years. Ever since this was discovered 172 years ago, scientists have struggled to predict what each cycle will look like.
But just last week at the National Astronomy Meeting in Wales, mathematics professor Valentina Zharkova from Northumbria University in the UK has presented a new model that can forecast what these solar cycles will look like based on the dynamo effects at play in two layers of the Sun. Zharkova says she can predict their influence with an accuracy of 97 percent.
What exactly are these so-called dynamo effects? They're part of a geophysical theory that explains how the motion of Earth's outer core moves conducting material, such as liquid iron, across a weak magnetic field to create an electric current. This electric current also interacts with the fluid motion below the surface of Earth to create two magnetic fields along the axis of its rotation.
When Zharkova's model applied this theory to the Sun, it drew its predictions assuming that there are dynamo effects in two subterranean layers - one deep down in the convection zone, and another up near the surface, each fluctuating between the northern and southern hemispheres.
"We found magnetic wave components appearing in pairs, originating in two different layers in the Sun's interior. They both have a frequency of approximately 11 years, although this frequency is slightly different, and they are offset in time. Combining both waves together and comparing to real data for the current solar cycle, we found that our predictions showed an accuracy of 97 percent."
Looking at these magnetic wave patterns, the model predicted that there would be few sunspots over the next two 11-year heartbeats - called Cycle 25, which peaks in 2022, and Cycle 26, which runs from 2030 to 2040.
"In Cycle 26, the two waves exactly mirror each other - peaking at the same time but in opposite hemispheres of the Sun. Their interaction will be disruptive, or they will nearly cancel each other. We predict that this will lead to the properties of a 'Maunder minimum'," said Zharkova.
During the original Maunder Minimum, the entire River Thames froze over in England. So I guess time to get your skates ready?