Climate Change From The Sun

By Justin Fujioka
Published On: Nov 02 2011 07:13:04 AM HST
Updated On: Nov 03 2011 07:30:54 AM HST

The amount of energy the sun puts out varies, and when it does climate change happened before and will happen again.

Scientists at the University of Hawaii's Institute for Astronomy are working to understand these solar variations with hopes of one day predicting them and the climate change they bring.

"We know that in the past, the sun influenced climate in a big way," said Jeff Kuhn an astronomer with the UH Institute for Astronomy.

Playing a big role -- the amount of sunspots, or dark spots, on the sun.

Scientists know an increase in sunspots brings an increase in global temperature, and vice versa.

You would think it would be the other way around. But, areas surrounding these dark spots are brighter, therefore, hotter than the sun's average.

The number of sunspots dropped dramatically, in the 1,600s, causing temperatures on Earth to drop a little more than a degree.

"You could ice skate over the Dutch canals and you can't do that anymore," said Kuhn. "It's because the climate -- the winter was harsh and it affected the economy. It affected agriculture in real ways."

That's why scientists say it's so important to study the sun -- which is a boiling pot of gas and energy fueled by magnetism.

"And that magnetism changes and somehow it controls," said Kuhn. "And it's like a valve that regulates the amount of energy that the sun produces that eventually strikes the Earth."

But we don't know why these changes happen. So, of course, there's no way of predicting them.

The summit of Haleakala on Maui is usually above the clouds, and that's why it was chosen to be the future home of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope, or ATST.

It will be the largest solar telescope in the world.

If everything goes as planned, it will allow scientists to see the surface of the sun in fine detail beginning in 2018.

"It's the biggest jump in our ability to look at the sun since Galileo," said Kuhn. "It really is a revolution and you've got to go back to the 1600s to see a similar advance from the ground in being able to study the sun."

The more we know about the sun, scientists can better forecast what may lie ahead.

"It's kind of like predicting the weather," said Kuhn. "We can't change the course of a hurricane, but we sure do want to know when one is coming so we can prepare for it."

More sunspots also means more solar flares, which have disrupted our power and communication systems in the past.

The ATST is funded by the National Science Foundation and led by the National Solar Observatory with help from many educational institutions, including UH.

Studying asteroids is another way astronomy is important to life on Earth.

Next Wednesday on KITV4 News at 10, we'll take you inside a facility atop Haleakala that searches for near-Earth objects that may hit our planet and what the telescope has already found.

We also have great photographs during our time on the summit of Haleakala. Check out the slideshow

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