Cosmic Rays Dismissed

This item goes a long way toward eliminating cosmic rays as a climate variable. It is sort of nice to know that we can eliminate at least one such variable. This is yet another case were improved resolution knocks out an attractive conjecture. Certainly the possibility of a correlation existed here and the lack of such is extremely convincing. We will not hear from this theory again.

MODIS data: cosmic rays do not explain global warming

December 24, 2008--The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (
MODIS), a spectral instrument built by Raytheon (El Segundo, CA) and sent into space on the Earth Observing System (EOS) Terra and Aqua satellites, has provided data for a new study that supports earlier findings by stating that changes in cosmic rays most likely do not contribute to climate change.

It has sometimes been claimed that changes in radiation from space--galactic
cosmic rays--can be one of the causes of global warming. The new study, which investigates the effect of cosmic rays on clouds, concludes that the likelihood of this is very small.

The study, "Cosmic rays, cloud condensation nuclei and clouds--a reassessment using MODIS data," was recently published in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. A group of researchers from the University of Oslo (Oslo, Norway), the Norwegian Institute for Air Research (Kjeller, Norway), the CICERO Center for Climate and Environmental Research (Oslo, Norway), and the University of Iceland (Reykjavik, Iceland) are behind the study.

The MODIS instrument has an off-axis telescope with a 17.78-cm-diameter aperture and provides image data in 36 spectral bands, ranging from 620 to 670 nm (band 1) to 14.085 to 14.385 microns (band 36). The instrument can reach a peak daytime data rate of 11 Mbit/s and draws an average of 150 W of electrical power.

Cosmic rays unlikely to affect warming

There are scientific uncertainties about cosmic rays and cloud formation. Some researchers have claimed that a reduction of cosmic rays during the last decades has contributed to the global temperature rise. The hypothesis is that fewer cosmic rays causes fewer cloud droplets and reduced droplet size, and that this again causes global warming, since reduced cloud droplets would reflect less energy from the sun back to space. However, the researchers who stick to this hypothesis find little support amongst colleagues.

"According to our research, it does not look like reduced cosmic rays leads to reduced cloud formation," says Jon Egill Kristjansson, a professor at the University of Oslo.

This result is in line with most other research in the field. As far as Kristjansson knows, no studies have proved a correlation between reduced cosmic rays and reduced cloud formation. Kristjansson also points out that most research shows no reduction in cosmic rays during the last decades, and that an astronomic explanation of today's global warming therefore seems very unlikely.

Data from solar outbreaks

Kristjansson and his colleagues have used observations from so-called Forbush decrease events: Sudden outbreaks of intense solar activity that lead to a strong reduction of cosmic rays, lasting for a couple of days. The researchers have identified 22 such events between 2000 and 2005.

Based on data from the spaceborne MODIS instrument, the researchers have investigated whether these events have affected cloud formation. While previous studies have mainly considered cloud cover, the high spatial and spectral resolution of the MODIS data also allows for a more thorough study of microphysical parameters such as cloud droplet size, cloud water content and cloud optical depth. No statistically significant correlations were found between any of the four cloud parameters and galactic cosmic rays.

"Reduced cosmic rays did not lead to reduced cloud formation, either during the outbreaks or during the days that followed. Indeed, following some of the events we could see a reduction, but following others there was an increase in cloud formation. We did not find any patterns in the way the clouds changed," says Kristjansson.

By focusing on pristine Southern Hemisphere ocean regions, the researchers examined areas where a cosmic-ray signal should be easier to detect than elsewhere.

Supports other recent work

Joanna Haigh from Imperial College London has also studied possible links between solar variability and modern-day climate change. "This is a careful piece of work by Jon Egill Kristjansson that appears to find no evidence for the reputed link between cosmic rays and clouds," she commented to BBC. "It's supporting other recent work that also found no relationship."

posted by John Wallace

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