What’s this about cosmic rays and global warming?

By Ken Perrott 12/09/2011 10

This old argument is getting another airing among the internet climate change contrarian/denier ghetto. Briefly it claims that humans have nothing to do with current climate change – it’s all caused by the sun! Specifically the influence of cosmic rays originating from the sun on formation of clouds in the atmosphere.

Of course things are never that simple – but that doesn’t stop those wishing to justify a preconceived position. And the sudden new evidence which is being touted arises from a recent paper from CERN  Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation published in Nature. The denier ghetto has come out with headlines like New CERN “CLOUD” Study Makes the Al Gore Climate Change Forecasts Obsolete! Or locally the NZ climate change denier blog Climate Conversation asserts CLOUD proves cosmic ray link!

The reasearch findings in no way justifies these headlines. And even veteran denier Richard Treadgold at Climate Conversations has backed away to some extent from his headline. Nevertheless it ahs him demanding that New Zealand review its Emmisions Trading Scheme and he thinks that “warmists” are responding by “rushing to the exits”!

Yeah, right!

What are the research findings?

Potholer54 has produced a nice video summary of the facts around this research Are cosmic rays causing global warming? It’s well worth watching

Another brief video, starring Jasper Kirkby the lead scientists in this work,  also provides more information on this work  Kirkby on Cosmic Rays

As Kirkby points out the work is only the first step in this research and says nothing about the influence of cosmic rays on cloud formation. This initial work really only reports the influence of chemicals and cosmic rays  on nucleation of chemical particles which may eventually lead to some cloud formation.

As for headlines like CERN: ‘Climate models will need to be substantially revised’ Kirkby points out we are a long way from that – at least ten years before the influence on models can even be considered.

It’s certainly interesting research, but only one step in considering climatic effects. We still have a long way to go to understand how clouds and other aerosols influence climate change.

And it is the nature of research that we should be ready for all sorts of tangential leads produced. For example, perhaps this research may in the end say more about the influence of human activities on climate through the emission of all sorts of chemicals not yet considered and their role in cosmic ray induced particulate formation in the atmosphere.

Thanks to Richard Christie and Cedric Katesby for videos.

See also: For a more detailed discussion of Kirkby’s research watch this  video of one of his lectures (65 min): Jasper Kirkby: The CLOUD experiment at CERN.

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10 Responses to “What’s this about cosmic rays and global warming?”

  • Yeah, kind of an object lesson in why the “skeptic” movement don’t deserve the name.

    It’s one thing not to accept an orthodox position, but to then jump on evidence that one part of a multi-step process that might be able to trigger an increase is probably possible (even if it couldn’t explain 20th Century warming) as definitive proof that the IPCC got it all wrong and CO2 doesn’t drive warming? That’s something all together different.

  • Wow, It’s so cut and dried when you see that video. Fantastic.

    However, when the paper was published, the folks at CERN decided to include a summary of what the experiment meant, they wrote “we have found that natural rates of atmospheric ionisation caused by cosmic rays can substantially enhance nucleation under the conditions we studied – by up to a factor of 10. Ion‐enhancement is particularly pronounced in the cool temperatures of the mid‐troposphere and above, where CLOUD has found that sulphuric acid and water vapour can nucleate without the need for additional vapours. This result leaves open the possibility that cosmic rays could also influence climate.”

    Before this experiment, cosmic rays were the laughing stock of climate science, it was a subject which did not merit discussion, it was voodoo science. Cosmic rays had Zero influence on climate. Now cosmic rays are back on the table, not zero anymore, CERN said so.

    CERN also wrote “Based on the first results from CLOUD, it is clear that the treatment of aerosol formation in climate models will need to be substantially revised, since all models assume that nucleation is caused by these vapours and water alone.”

    In other words, based on the resultss climate models will need to include some form of cosmic ray component which they did not need before, CERN said so. I realize that you tried to debunk the quote above, but you failed.

    And good luck claiming that CERN is being paid by Big Oil.

    No matter how much you wish it were true, sorry Anthropogenic climate change is dead.


    • klem – pewrhaps you should look at the IPCC reports befrore saying “cosmic rays were the laughing stock of climate science, ” For example Indirect Effects of Solar Variability .

      Your emotive and misleading derscription surely invalidates much of your comment.

      The fact reamins that Kikby’s Nature paper does not at all support your claim that “climate models will need to include some form of cosmic ray component which they did not need before”. The paper does not report anything on cloud formation – only particulates which, if bigger, could possibly nucleate clouds. As the Author says “those particles are far too small to serve as seeds for clouds. “At the moment, it actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.”

      As for you cliam “Anthropogenic climate change is dead.” – how the hell did you conclude that? Or is it a wish, nothing to do with reality?

  • Hi Ken, Its the suns influence on the Galatic cosmic rays that seems to cause a change in cloud effects ,which then causes a change in the heat balance. I note that Jasper Kirby before musselled by his boss proposed that this line of research might account for half to all of the temperature change. (This statement held up his funding for years) What the CLOUD experiment has done is to show the mechanism for cloud formation and hence add another piece of support to the Svensmark hypothesis. When you look at the graphic buried in the CERN press release supporting material there is no doubt about the effect and its significance for climate science. While there is definitely more to learn from the particle physics point of view it should not minimise the achievement of all those scientist over the past 16 years that have been working on this.
    The credibility of the CERN researchers gives further credence to this line of enquiry. If the Svensmark approach accounts for a significant part of the increase in T and CO2 is small by comparison then from a New Zealand point of view we have an ETS policy based on a false or tenuous premise. That distorts the economy because of bad policy formation. This can be seen when you look at how our policy is formulated around a response to Kyoto not to a scientifically proven problem for New Zealand. The ETS even in its current form will not solve the CO2 issue (if it is an issue) but it has already affected the poor and those on fixed incomes by raising prices.
    What is more interesting to speculate on from a scientific point of view is if Svensmark is right how do you form a policy to change the variables associated with galatic cosmic rays, the sun and the effect on the earth if you want to stablise the temperature. Now that is an interesting problem to solve.

    • Kevin, sounds very much to me that you have a conspiracy theory you are trying to fit reality into. Never a good idea.

      On what do you base your claim “What the CLOUD experiment has done is to show the mechanism for cloud formation and hence add another piece of support to the Svensmark hypothesis. “? I personally found the interesting part of the Kirkby findings were that the assumed mechanism (involvement of sulphuric acid and ammonia) in forming the pre-nucleating particles just didn’t explain the size of the effect. Perhaps we have to consider the influence of other gases, including possible human manufactured chemicals.

      As for clouds and aerosols, the lack of precision in our undertstanding of these remains. The nature paper doesn’t change that. The CERN work has not claified anything at this stage. Kirkby himself suggests useful results will probgably only come after 10 years.

      The current assessment is that we are sure there is global warming occurring and we are pretty sure (not completely) that human factors contribute to this. The role of greenhouse gases is understood most accurately. Work continues on aerosols and clouds (unfortunately two satellites launched to measure these inputs didn’t make orbit [and you can imagine what the conspiracy theorists said about that]).

      So the scientific assessment is that human contribution to climate change is a problem for the whole world – including New Zealand. Even if the effects in NZ may be more political and social (immigration, etc) than climatic (some areas will poroibably actually benefit from the likely climate change). There are going to be huge political and social problems internationally.

      Of course cloud and cosmic ray effects will be incorporated into our scientific assessment as our knjowledge improves (including furtre CERN work). There is no conspiracy to prevent that – even though the ACT Party claims there is. They ahve their own agenda.

      Governments would be irresponsible to ignore the data from their experts – as ACT demands – and listen to contrarians and deniers.

  • Hi Ken, your presumption about conspiracy theorist is very unscientific. That said if you think the people who control the funding of science are apolitical you are dreaming and the Svensmark Hypothesis work is a classic example. However it is all moving along now. I agree with you that the next phase looking at the other gases will be interesting. I’m sure there are human factors affecting climate the issue to me seems to be at what level. I’ve been to China a few times and if what they are pumping into the atmosphere isn’t affecting climate I would be surprised.
    When you look at the major decisions Governments make they invariably get it wrong and in the case of the ETS very wrong. What I object to is no cost benefit analysis according to Smith.
    I also don’t think we should be a prime mover purely for economic reasons. Bad timing aside from CHCH the economic crash we don’t need extra costs on our export earners or for that matter on the population especially when the policy will not solve the the presumed problem

    • Kevin, I have no confidence in politicians either (especially those crooks in the ACT Party) and I certainly don’t have the economic background to speak authoritatively on the relative merits of ETS and carbon taxes. That is not my concern.

      However, when I see people prepared to lie about our science for economic or political reasons (as ACT has in their attacks on NIWA) and distort the science to attempt confusion (as is happening over this CERN paper) I do tend to take an ethical stand for honesty as I understand the science. And I am prepared to stand up for the integrity of science when attacked in such a dishonest way.

      So my concern has nothing to do with ETS. And I actually think the costs of doing something sensible to mitigate the effects of climate chsnge are probably minor – and certainly less than the costs of doing nothing. So I am not influenced by your argument along those lines.

      It’s actually not hard to see the conspiracy theories like One World Government behind climate change denial. After all people like Ian Wishart and mad Monckton specifically present those theories.

      On the other hand I do understand the psychological attraction of denial – for anyone. It’s a perfectly natural reaction in this situation.

      But, I think it’s necessary that scientists are clear about the current knowledge, it’s specific strengths and conclusions as well as the uncertainties. 

      That is my motive for writing this article. I am happy to consider any factual critique of it, of course. But I suggest that vague excuses like
      “If you think the people who control the funding of science are apolitical you are dreaming are not in that class. They are just a way of avoiding the factual reality if the current science.

      So Kevin, do you have any genuine scientific objections to what I have written in this article?

  • “As for you cliam “Anthropogenic climate change is dead.” – how the hell did you conclude that? Or is it a wish, nothing to do with reality?”

    It is reality Ken. Climate change in almost every country on earth except NZ and Australia is a non-starter, it is finished. People all over the world have put ACC behind them, they have moved on. Some Governments are still trying to flog that dead horse, but they do it at their political peril. The subject was not even broached at the G8 last year, a so-called ‘global threat’ that is not even broached is not really considered a threat anymore. There is no ETS in the USA, Canada, Japan, Russia, Africa, Central America, South America, China, India, the Middle East, etc. The EU is still stuck with their corrupt Cap&Trade market, but I have my concerns about its future after Kyoto fails next year. My claim that climate change is dead is supported through real world observation. That is how I arrived at that conclusion Ken. And I am not influenced by your argument.


    • So klem, your claim was politcal, and really just your own personal assessment, nothing to do with science.

      As I said – it certainly doesn’t apply to current climate science.

  • As a scientist trained in an area very different from climate change it would concern me if billions of dollars were going into a fraudulent area of science becuase that money could be spent more constructively elsewhere. However, I have looked at the arguments for Anthropogenic climate change and the arguments are convincing.
    Those who suggest a conspiracy by climate change scientists overlook the fact that the majority of scientists in other fields accept that there is good evidence for climate change. If they didn’t the climate change scientists would be torn limb from limb by other scientists.
    Funding for science is scarce – if most scientists thought climate change science was fraudulent it wouldn’t be getting the funding it does.