Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Approaching Winters


By James Marusek,
Nuclear Physicist & Engineer
U.S. Department of the Navy, retired


It was the year 1799, during the “Dalton Minimum” when the sun was quiet that George Frederick Bollinger led a group of early pioneers from North Carolina to establish early settlements in Missouri. They hoped to cross their largest obstacle, the Mississippi River, on the ice, frozen solid in mid-winter.

The pioneers and their wagon train moved westward a few miles each day, making and breaking camp each night, fording the small streams and floating across the larger ones on rafts which they made from the nearby trees, following roads that were barely trails through forests and valleys.

They arrived on the east bank of the Mississippi River opposite St. Genevieve in late December, pitched camp and explored potential river crossings. St. Genevieve is located about a hundred miles downstream from Saint Louis. Winter had come early and the Mississippi river was already covered with ice. It was bitterly cold. They determined the ice was not yet thick enough to support a crossing of ox-carts and covered wagons. Daily the thickness of the ice was measured and then on December 31, a chopped hole in the ice indicated thickness well over two feet. They tested the ice by making a few trips across on foot and horseback. The believed the ice was thick enough to support a loaded wagon.

As a test, a wagon was selected to be driven across with no one riding and the driver would walk ahead watching the ice and leading his team. The trip across and back to camp was made without the ice cracking and preparations were made for an early crossing New Years Day.

The next morning final preparations were made to break camp and all supplies were loaded. The weather remained bitter cold with dark skies overhead and light snow falling, but the decision had been made to cross and there was no turning back. The group was devout German Reformed Protestants and they gathered together in the early cold gray dawn to seek guidance from their God for a safe crossing.

The cracking of whips like pistol shots rang out over the heads of the oxen to coax them out onto the ice; the crossing had began. All that were able, walked to lighten the loaded wagons, keeping a safe distance from the wagons, which were also spaced far apart to lessen the danger of breaking the ice. The crossing was made successfully with no mishaps, except extremely cold hands and feet.

The townsfolk of St. Genevieve had built a large fire to welcome and warm these new settlers. Safely across the Mississippi, they were relieved of their crossing fears and enjoyed the local hospitality. They exchanged news from the East for information of what they might expect ahead. Needed supplies were purchased and even the weather abated a little as the sun broke through the clouds. They settled along the Whitewater River where the soil was rich.

We are transitioning into Solar Cycle (SC) 24 and the sun has become fairly quiet. During most of the last century (SC 16-23) the sun has been in a “Grand Maxima”. As a result the Earth has experience warming. But with SC 24 the sun is again changing states. From the peak year 1998, the lower Troposphere temperatures globally have already fallen around 1/2 degree Celsius. This is despite the fact that during that same time period, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen 5% from 367 ppm to 386 ppm. Several solar scientist are predicting the sun will slide into a “Dalton Minimum” event in SC 25, about a decade from now. If that happens, the Earth will experience some bitterly cold winters for several decades.

The winters may once again resemble the winters 200 years ago during the time of the early pioneers. Imagine for a minute the west fork of the White River near Bloomfield, Indiana freezing into a block of ice two feet thick.

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