Friday, April 04, 2008

Climate Maverick Roped: Sun Not Disrupting Climate

Danish scientist Henrik Svensmark pissed off a lot of people last year when he dropped his theory on global warming. The chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, called Svensmark's work “extremely naive and irresponsible."

Svensmark's basic idea: the sun, not humans are causing the globe to warm.

Of course, global warming skeptics had a field day. In fact,
according to the BBC, "Dr. Svensmark's idea formed a centrepiece of the controversial documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle."

But what Svensmark is saying is not exactly what you're probably thinking. He's not saying the sun is getting warmer or bigger. Or that the earth is drifting closer to the sun. Svensmark believes changes in the sun's activity indirectly affect global temperatures by moderating the intensity of cosmic rays entering our atmosphere. And that's where things get bizarre.

Based on Svensmark's research, cosmic rays can boost cloud formation. When cloud formation increases, more sun is reflected into space. Thus, an increase in cosmic rays entering our atmosphere would cool the earth, a decrease would warm it.

It sounds far fetched. But it's part of what Svensmark described as the emerging field of "cosmoclimatology" in
a 2007 interview with Discover Magazine. Cosmoclimatogy looks at the connection between "processes in space and what is happening here on Earth."

But cosmic rays can't simply waltz into our atmosphere at will. Our sun's radiation can disrupt cosmic rays. So when the sun's activity is high and powerful solar winds are radiated, cosmic rays have a hard time getting into our atmosphere. And according to Svensmark, of course, that would mean less clouds and a warmer Earth.

Before we go further, let's figure out what a cosmic ray is. Cosmic rays are flurries of super-charged particles generated by exploding stars (supernovas). When they enter Earth's atmosphere, they boost the level of ionization (electrical charge).

In Svensmark's research, he's found higher levels of ionization make cloud formation easier. In one experiment, Svensmark manipulated the ionization in an 8-cubic-meter chamber with the same mix of gasses as in our atmosphere. As ionization levels increased, he found small aerosols, the building blocks of clouds, were formed.

Again, this all sounds pretty far fetched. But Svensmark set off on his research after reading a 1991 paper that showed a "remarkable correlation" between solar activity and global temperatures. But he admitted in the Discover interview that "correlations are, of course, something that could be quite dubious, and they could go away if you get better data."

Well it appears as though "better data" is getting out.

In response to Svensmark's ideas, Lancaster University researchers set off in search of data supporting a link between solar activity and climate. Despite their efforts, no link was found.
According to the BBC, "the UK team explain that they used three different ways to search for a correlation, and found virtually none."

Another research team, from the UK's Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory, found that solar activity has actually been decreasing over the past 20 years. Thus, the globe should have been cooling, which it's not.

Neither team denies the sun, or cosmic rays, have an affect on climate. What their research shows is that the connection is too weak to make much of a difference. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually agrees that the sun has an affect on climate, despite calling Svensmark naïve and irresponsible. But over the past 30 years, "the contribution of humankind's greenhouse gas emissions has outweighed that of solar variability by a factor of about 13 to one."

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.