Page last updated at 22:03 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Dim Sun 'unlikely' chill factor

Frosted spider web seen against the Sun
Freezing temperatures affected many parts of Europe

Nasa scientists have said a prolonged "quiet spell" in the Sun's activity was unlikely to have been a factor in causing recent severe winter weather.

Heavy snow and ice brought dangerous conditions and transport disruption to parts of Europe and the UK's longest cold snap in almost 30 years.

In Scotland, temperatures plunged to -22.3C and snow shut a ski centre.

Last year, astronomers in the UK reported that the Sun was at its dimmest for almost a century.

Some scientists believe a similar "quiet spell" is connected to a cooling of temperatures in a period of time called the Maunder Minimum.

Also known as the Little Ice Age, it lasted 70 years from 1645 to 1715 and featured The Great Frost which froze the River Thames in London for days.

This period coincided with some of the most dramatic events in Scotland's history.

The temperature dropped to -22.3C in Altnaharra near Lairg in Sutherland
Hundreds of schools across Scotland were shut by snow and ice
Councils were forced to take emergency measures to preserve stocks of salt for road gritting crews following a national shortage

James VII (II of England) was forced into exile, there was rebellion, famine, an ill-fated Scottish bid to establish a colony in Central America and a sandstorm buried a coastal estate near Nairn.

The span of 70 years also saw the signing of the Act of Union in 1707 and the unsuccessful Jacobite rising of 1715.

Temperatures in Scotland during the Little Ice Age were 1.5C to 2C cooler than they are today. In the summer, this shortened the growing season and devastated staple crops.

US space agency Nasa has been making some of the closest and most detailed studies of the Sun.

Dr Christopher Mertens, a senior research scientist at the Nasa Langley Research Centre, said any effects of the dimming would be absorbed high above the Earth.

He said: "We are currently in a prolonged minimum in the 11-year solar cycle.

"So far there has been only a faint climate response to solar cycle variability detected.

"Therefore, it is highly unlikely that anomalies in this year's winter season can be associated with a solar phenomena."

In Scotland, the recent prolonged spell of severe winter weather put stocks of rock salt for treating icy roads under strain.

The CairnGorm Mountain ski resort was also closed by heavy snow.

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