Why can't we do anything about the weather?

It’s hard to fathom that the warmth you feel (or don’t feel) today was created at a time when Neanderthals were still around. Yet that is not the real mystery. . .

We’re all still reeling from the Met Office’s warning that we may be facing a decade of miserable summers. Perhaps it will help to recall that we don’t know everything about the sun. That burning ball of gas in the sky remains something of a mystery, and not just for its refusal to shine with any consistency over the UK.
 
The centre of the sun is fairly straightforward. Atoms of hydrogen fuse, forming atoms of helium and releasing energy that powers more fusion. That ongoing chain reaction, burning several million tonnes of hydrogen per second, heats the core of the sun to temperatures of roughly 15m°.
 
The laws of thermodynamics tell us that energy moves from hot to cold, and so heat starts moving towards the surface of the sun, where the temperature is a balmy 6,000°. It’s not an easy journey, though. It’s only about 700,000 kilometres, or a trip from the earth to the moon and back, but it takes the packets of energy released in nuclear fusion something like 40,000 years to reach the sun’s surface.
 
It’s hard to fathom that the warmth you feel (or don’t feel) today was created at a time when Neanderthals were still around. Yet that is not the real mystery. The problem that has scientists scratching their heads is the temperature of the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. The temperature of this blanket of ionised gas is roughly 1m° to 2m°. Bafflingly, the further away you move from the furnace at the centre of the sun, the hotter it gets.
 
The solution to this puzzle lies in the region of the sun known as the chromosphere. This is the layer that lies between the surface and the corona. That is why Nasa has just launched a telescope to take a closer look. For the next two years, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (Iris) will watch the chromosphere from its position in orbit 400 miles above Planet Earth.
 
It’s ironic that Iris’s launch on 27 June was delayed by a power outage that took Vandenberg Air Force Base’s systems offline: that is exactly what Iris may help prevent. The huge quantity of energy trapped in the chromosphere powers the solar wind, a stream of particles that emanates from the sun, as well as events such as the coronal mass ejections that occasionally catapult hundred-billionkilogram gobs of plasma out into space at speeds of up to seven million miles per hour.
 
When those hot plasma balls (they start off at 10m°) head our way, things can get pretty tricky here on earth. Interactions between the plasma balls and the earth’s magnetic field can cause havoc with our power grids and threaten vital infrastructure.
 
The US National Academy of Sciences has estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, a freak space storm could cause a catastrophe that would leave the US government with a repair bill of up to $2trn. Improving our understanding of the chromosphere is one way to tell how badly the sun could hurt us, so the $100m to build Iris and look into the possibilities seems a bargain.
 
The main working part of the spacecraft is a telescope that inspects the ultraviolet radiation coming from the 2,000-mile gap between the surface and the corona. It will take an image every ten seconds or so and analyse the spectrum of radiation for clues to how the heat is moving around to produce such odd changes in temperature. In a couple of years, we may have solved the biggest mystery in our solar system. Then we can sit, shivering under steel-grey skies, marvelling at human scientific ingenuity and wondering why someone can’t do something about the weather. 
 
A field of rapeseed blossoms in the sunshine. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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