Tag Archives: AR4

ConCERN Trolling on Cosmic Rays, Clouds, and Climate Change

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Mr DeJerk”, used under Creative Commons

OR: Nope, cosmic rays still not driving climate change, cont’d, cont’d…

Clouded “Reporting”

Depending on where you get your science news, you might be hearing claims to the effect that CLOUD at CERN has “proven that cosmic rays drive climate change”, or something to that effect. That’s certainly the impression that climate “skeptics” would like you to get. Unfortunately for “skeptics” (and if we don’t rein in greenhouse emissions, everyone else), it’s not true. While cosmic rays may have some influence on cloud formation, they are not responsible for the present, human-driven climatic change or alleged changes in the geologic past.

What’s the deal?

Although seemingly out of fashion for a while until recently, the “cosmic rays are driving climate” myth has long been one of the mainstays of the self-contradictory climate “skeptic” argument stable, and it’s something covered fairly often at this blog (previous posts here, here, here, here, here, and here). And as with any good falsehood, it starts with a kernel of truth.

It is completely accepted in mainstream science that galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) might be able to influence the nucleation process of potential cloud condensation nuclei (CCN), and that it’s conceivable that this could influence cloud behavior at some level. As the IPCC AR4 noted (I’ll include the full text at the end, after the jump):

By altering the population of CCN and hence microphysical cloud properties (droplet number and concentration), cosmic rays may also induce processes analogous to the indirect effect of tropospheric aerosols. The presence of ions, such as produced by cosmic rays, is recognised as influencing several microphysical mechanisms (Harrison and Carslaw, 2003). Aerosols may nucleate preferentially on atmospheric cluster ions. In the case of low gas-phase sulphuric acid concentrations, ion-induced nucleation may dominate over binary sulphuric acid-water nucleation.

While a plausible mechanism exists, real world verifications are necessarily difficult to undertake. The CLOUD project at CERN is seeking to do exactly that. The “skeptic” and right wing blogospheres are abuzz because Jasper Kirkby, et al. have just published the first results in Nature (Kirkby 2011).

RealClimate has a good rundown of what Kirkby et al.’s results do and do not mean. The short version is that Kirkby et al. do find increased aerosol nucleation under increased ionization (i.e. “more cosmic rays”), particularly in the mid-troposphere, but the effect is smaller at warmer, lower levels where the cosmic ray-climate myth proponents claim it has its greatest climatic effect. Lead author Jasper Kirkby has tried to set the record straight, stating (all following emphases mine):

[The paper] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.

While their results provide some confirmation of the potential mechanism by which GCRs might induce cloud nucleation, they in no way demonstrate that GCRs do significantly promote cloud formation in the real world, let alone support the myth that GCRs drive significant climatic change.

“But wait!” I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “the Kirkby et al. results certainly don’t disprove GCRs drive significant climatic changes.” And that’s true enough.

How Do We Know That Cosmic Rays Aren’t Driving Significant Climatic Change?

In reference to the present anthropogenic climatic changes that we’re driving through alteration of the planetary energy balance notably through greenhouse gas emissions, we can theorize what certain “fingerprints” of enhanced greenhouse warming should look like, and examine observational data to see whether those fingerprints show up. And they do.

Moreover, we can examine the claims made by Svensmark, Shaviv, and others who proclaim GCRs drive climate and see whether or not they hold up. They don’t:

We can look at the paleoclimatic record during periods of significant changes in GCR activity, and there is no corresponding change in climate, e.g. the Laschamp excursion ~40kya (Muscheler 2005).

We can examine the change in GCRs in response to solar variability over recent decades or the course of a solar cycle, and find there is no or little corresponding change in climate (Lockwood 2007, Lockwood 2008, Kulmala 2010).

We can look at alleged correlations between GCRs and climate in the geologic past due to our sun passing through galactic spiral arms, and find that these “correlations” were based on an unrealistic, overly-simplified model of spiral structure and are not valid (Overholt 2009). Standard climatic processes (like CO2) more parsimoniously explained the climatic changes even before taking the flawed spiral model into account (Rahmstorf 2004).

We can examine the specific mechanisms by which Svensmark and others have claimed GCRs influence climate via cloud behavior and show that alleged correlations between GCRs and clouds were incorrectly calculated or insufficiently large, proposed mechanisms (e.g. Forbush decreases) are too short lived, too small in magnitude, or otherwise incapable of altering cloud behavior on a large enough scale to drive significant climatic change (Sloan 2008, Erlykin 2009, Erlykin 2009a, Pierce 2009, Calogovic 2010, Snow-Kropla 2011, Erlykin 2011).

Basically, what’s actually been demonstrated by Kirkby, et al. isn’t at odds with the IPCC. What is at odds with the IPCC hasn’t been demonstrated by Kirkby, et al. And the claims by Svensmark, Shaviv, and other ‘GCRs drive climate’ proponents have been debunked at pretty much every step of the way. GCRs may have some influence on cloud behavior, but they’re not responsible for significant climatic changes now or in the geologic past.

To Be Continued?

The CLOUD project at CERN is essentially just getting started. Its preliminary findings will help aerosol modelers, and hopefully it will continue to provide useful results. After the initial furor of “skeptic” blog-spinning dies down, cosmic rays will probably find themselves falling out of favor once again. But there’s no such thing as too debunked when it comes to myths about climate change, and there’s little chance this will be the last time cosmic rays will be trotted out to claim that we don’t need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


  • Calogovic, J., et al. (2010): Sudden cosmic ray decreases: No change of global cloud cover. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L03802, doi:10.1029/2009GL041327.
  • Erlykin, A.D., et al (2009): Solar activity and the mean global temperature. Environmental Research Letters, 4, 014006, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014006.
  • Erlykin, A.D., et al (2009a): On the correlation between cosmic ray intensity and cloud cover. Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, 71, 17-18, 1794-1806, doi:10.1016/j.jastp.2009.06.012.
  • Erlykin, A.D., and A.W. Wolfendale (2011): Cosmic ray effects on cloud cover and their relevance to climate change. Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, 73, 13, 1681-1686, doi:10.1016/j.jastp.2011.03.001.
  • Kirkby, J., et al. (2011): Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation. Nature, 476, 429–433, doi:10.1038/nature10343.
  • Kulmala, M., et al. (2010): Atmospheric data over a solar cycle: no connection between galactic cosmic rays and new particle formation. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 10, 1885-1898, doi:10.5194/acp-10-1885-2010.
  • Lockwood, M., and C. Fröhlich (2007): Recent oppositely directed trends in solar climate forcings and the global mean surface air temperature. Proceedings of the Royal Society: A. 463, 2447- 2460, doi:10.1098/rspa.2007.1880.
  • Lockwood, M., and C. Fröhlich (2008): Recent oppositely directed trends in solar climate forcings and the global mean surface air temperature. II. Different reconstructions of the total solar irradiance variation and dependence on response time scale. Proceedings of the Royal Society: A, 464, 1367-1385, doi:10.1098/rspa.2007.0347.
  • Muscheler, R., et al. (2005): Geomagnetic field intensity during the last 60,000 years based on 10Be and 36Cl from the Summit ice cores and 14C. Quaternary Science Reviews, 24, 16-17, 1849-1860, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2005.01.012.
  • Overholt, A.C., et al. (2009): Testing the link between terrestrial climate change and galactic spiral arm transit. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 705, 2, L101, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/705/2/L101.
  • Pierce, J.R., and P.J. Adams (2009): Can cosmic rays affect cloud condensation nuclei by altering new particle formation rates? Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L09820, doi:10.1029/2009GL037946.
  • Rahmstorf, S., et al. (2004): Cosmic Rays, Carbon Dioxide, and Climate. Eos Transactions AGU, 85(4), doi:10.1029/2004EO040002.
  • Sloan, T., and A.W. Wolfendale (2008): Testing the proposed causal link between cosmic rays and cloud cover. Environmental Research Letters, 3, 024001, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/3/2/024001.
  • Snow-Kropla, E.J., et al. (2011): Cosmic rays, aerosol formation and cloud-condensation nuclei: sensitivities to model uncertainties. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 11, 4001-4013, doi:10.5194/acp-11-4001-2011.

[Ed.'s Note: This post has been lightly edited since publication for grammar, style, and the addition of relevant references.]

The full text from the IPCC AR4 section on cosmic rays and climate:

When solar activity is high, the more complex magnetic configuration of the heliosphere reduces the flux of galactic cosmic rays in the Earth’s atmosphere. Various scenarios have been proposed whereby solar-induced galactic cosmic ray fluctuations might influence climate (as surveyed by Gray et al., 2005). Carslaw et al. (2002) suggested that since the plasma produced by cosmic ray ionization in the troposphere is part of an electric circuit that extends from the Earth’s surface to the ionosphere, cosmic rays may affect thunderstorm electrification. By altering the population of CCN and hence microphysical cloud properties (droplet number and concentration), cosmic rays may also induce processes analogous to the indirect effect of tropospheric aerosols. The presence of ions, such as produced by cosmic rays, is recognised as influencing several microphysical mechanisms (Harrison and Carslaw, 2003). Aerosols may nucleate preferentially on atmospheric cluster ions. In the case of low gas-phase sulphuric acid concentrations, ion-induced nucleation may dominate over binary sulphuric acid-water nucleation. In addition, increased ion nucleation and increased scavenging rates of aerosols in turbulent regions around clouds seem likely. Because of the difficulty in tracking the influence of one particular modification brought about by ions through the long chain of complex interacting processes, quantitative estimates of galactic cosmic-ray induced changes in aerosol and cloud formation have not been reached.

Many empirical associations have been reported between globally averaged low-level cloud cover and cosmic ray fluxes (e.g., Marsh and Svensmark, 2000a,b). Hypothesised to result from changing ionization of the atmosphere from solar-modulated cosmic ray fluxes, an empirical association of cloud cover variations during 1984 to 1990 and the solar cycle remains controversial because of uncertainties about the reality of the decadal signal itself, the phasing or anti-phasing with solar activity, and its separate dependence for low, middle and high clouds. In particular, the cosmic ray time series does not correspond to global total cloud cover after 1991 or to global low-level cloud cover after 1994 (Kristjánsson and Kristiansen, 2000; Sun and Bradley, 2002) without unproven de-trending (Usoskin et al., 2004). Furthermore, the correlation is significant with low-level cloud cover based only on infrared (not visible) detection. Nor do multi-decadal (1952 to 1997) time series of cloud cover from ship synoptic reports exhibit a relationship to cosmic ray flux. However, there appears to be a small but statistically significant positive correlation between cloud over the UK and galactic cosmic ray flux during 1951 to 2000 (Harrison and Stephenson, 2006). Contrarily, cloud cover anomalies from 1900 to 1987 over the USA do have a signal at 11 years that is anti-phased with the galactic cosmic ray flux (Udelhofen and Cess, 2001). Because the mechanisms are uncertain, the apparent relationship between solar variability and cloud cover has been interpreted to result not only from changing cosmic ray fluxes modulated by solar activity in the heliosphere (Usoskin et al., 2004) and solar-induced changes in ozone (Udelhofen and Cess, 2001), but also from sea surface temperatures altered directly by changing total solar irradiance (Kristjánsson et al., 2002) and by internal variability due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (Kernthaler et al., 1999). In reality, different direct and indirect physical processes (such as those described in Section 9.2) may operate simultaneously.

Did the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report oversell the climate-malaria connection?

In light of a recent paper by Gething et al. published in Nature that challenges the notion that malaria will be on the march in a warming world, it might be useful to see whether or not there is a basis for accusing the IPCC for yet another “error”.

You be the judge: Malaria

The spatial distribution, intensity of transmission, and seasonality of malaria is influenced by climate in sub-Saharan Africa; socio-economic development has had only limited impact on curtailing disease distribution (Hay et al., 2002a; Craig et al., 2004).

Rainfall can be a limiting factor for mosquito populations and there is some evidence of reductions in transmission associated with decadal decreases in rainfall. Interannual malaria variability is climate-related in specific ecoepidemiological zones (Julvez et al., 1992; Ndiaye et al., 2001; Singh and Sharma, 2002; Bouma, 2003; Thomson et al., 2005). A systematic review of studies of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and malaria concluded that the impact of El Niño on the risk of malaria epidemics is well established in parts of southern Asia and SouthAmerica (Kovats et al., 2003). Evidence of the predictability of unusually high or low malaria anomalies from both sea-surface temperature (Thomson et al., 2005) and multi-model ensemble seasonal climate forecasts in Botswana (Thomson et al., 2006) supports the practical and routine use of seasonal forecasts for malaria control in southern Africa (DaSilva et al., 2004).

The effects of observed climate change on the geographical distribution of malaria and its transmission intensity in highland regions remains controversial. Analyses of time-series data in some sites in East Africa indicate that malaria incidence has increased in the apparent absence of climate trends (Hay et al., 2002a, b; Shanks et al., 2002). The proposed driving forces behind the malaria resurgence include drug resistance of the malaria parasite and a decrease in vector control activities. However, the validity of this conclusion has been questioned because it may have resulted from inappropriate use of the climatic data (Patz, 2002).Analysis of updated temperature data for these regions has found a significant warming trend since the end of the 1970s, with the magnitude of the change affecting transmission potential (Pascual et al., 2006). In southern Africa, long-term trends for malaria were not significantly associated with climate, although seasonal changes in case numbers were significantly associated with a number of climatic variables (Craig et al., 2004). Drug resistance and HIV infection were associated with long-term malaria trends in the same area (Craig et al., 2004).

A number of further studies have reported associations between interannual variability in temperature and malaria transmission in the African highlands. An analysis of de-trended time-series malaria data in Madagascar indicated that minimum temperature at the start of the transmission season, corresponding to the months when the human–vector contact is greatest, accounts for most of the variability between years (Bouma, 2003). In highland areas of Kenya, malaria admissions have been associated with rainfall and unusually high maximum temperatures 3-4 months previously (Githeko and Ndegwa, 2001). An analysis of malaria morbidity data for the period from the late 1980s until the early 1990s from 50 sites across Ethiopia found that epidemics were associated with high minimum temperatures in the preceding months (Abeku et al., 2003). An analysis of data from seven highland sites in East Africa reported that short-term climate variability played a more important role than long-term trends in initiating malaria epidemics (Zhou et al., 2004, 2005), although the method used to test this hypothesis has been challenged (Hay et al., 2005b).

There is no clear evidence that malaria has been affected by climate change in South America (Benitez et al., 2004) (see Chapter 1) or in continental regions of the Russian Federation (Semenov et al., 2002). The attribution of changes in human diseases to climate change must first take into account the considerable changes in reporting, surveillance, disease control measures, population changes, and other factors such as land use change (Kovats et al., 2001; Rogers and Randolph, 2006).

Despite the known causal links between climate and malaria transmission dynamics, there is still much uncertainty about the potential impact of climate change on malaria at local and global scales (see also Section 8.4.1) because of the paucity of concurrent detailed historical observations of climate and malaria, the complexity of malaria disease dynamics, and the importance of non-climatic factors, including socio-economic development, immunity and drug resistance, in determining infection and infection outcomes. Given the large populations living in highland areas of East Africa, the limitations of the analyses conducted, and the significant health risks of epidemic malaria, further research is warranted.