Wednesday July 6th 2011


More on sun-climate relations

Four new papers discuss the relatiosnhip between solar activity and climate: one by Judith Lean (2010) in WIREs Climate Change, a GRL paper by Calogovic et al. (2010), Kulmala et al. (2010), and an on-line preprint by Feulner and Rahmstorf (2010). They all look at different aspects of how changes in solar activity may influence our climate.

The paper by Judith Lean (2010) has the character of a review article, summarizing past studies on the relationship between solar forcing and climate. The main message from her article is that the solar forcing probably plays a modest role for the global warming over the last 100 years (10% or less). It’s a nice overview, but I miss treatment of uncertainties.

Her analysis is based on the HadCRUT3 data, and I wonder if she would get similar results if she chose the GISTEMP or NCDC instead. The choice may in particular be relevant for the discussion of the temperatures after 1998.

Personally, I regard the data on solar activity before 1900 as quite uncertain too. The reason is that there are strange things happening to the solar cycle length in the shift from the 19th to the 20th century. Hence, any analysis based on the past centuries is uncertain because of suspect data quality in the early part of the record. Lean mentions that proxy-based records are uncertain, however.

Another source of uncertainty stems from the analysis itself – a regression analysis with chaotic data can easily yield misleading results. Gavin and I showed in a recent paper that multiple regression can produce strange results when applied to the global mean temperature and a number of forcings.

In other words, I think the reader may get the wrong impression from Lean (2010) that the link between solar activity and climate is better established than the data and methods suggest. Especially when she discusses forecasts for the near future (eg. for year 2014) – I fear that such a discussion can be misinterpreted and misused. However, that’s my view, and it does not necessarily mean that her paper is incorrect – quite the opposite, I think her main conclusions are sound (Her estimate of the solar contribution to the global warming over past century – 10% or less – is in good agreement with the figure Gavin and I got in our analysis).

The positive side is that the paper is probably clearer and more accessible without all these caveats. I also think she makes an interesting point when she discusses ‘fundamental puzzles’ associated with claims of strong solar role in terms of the past warming. She puts this into the context of climate sensitivity, arguing that it would imply that Earth’s climate be insensitive to well-measured increases in GHG concentrations and simultaneously excessively sensitive to poorly known solar brightness changes. Furthermore, Lean argues that it would also require that the Sun’s brightness increased more in the past century than at any time in the past millennium – a situation not readily supported by observations.

The paper of Calogovic et al. (2010) is a follow-up of a recent paper by Svensmark et al. (2009), looking into the claim that the cloud water content drops after a Forbush event. Their work involved estimating cosmic ray fluxes for the whole planet, and comparing it to local cloud information derived from satellites. They concluded that the Forbush events had no detectable effect on the clouds.

Moreover, they also argued that the analysis of Svensmark et al. (2009) gave unreliable results since it included a Forbush event on January 20, 2005 which was accompanied by a strong solar proton event. However, they did not explain explicitly why such proton events would disturb the measurements, but referred to another study by Laken et al. (2009) in Geophysical Research Letter. Laken et. al. only discusses the proton events briefly, and refers to a study by Fluckiger et al. (2005), who state that “The cosmic ray ground level enhancement (GLE) on January 20, 2005 is ranked among the largest in years, with neutron monitor count rates increased by factors of more than 50″.

But there is no reference to proton events in Fluckiger et al. (2005), so I’m not convinced that proton events will invalidate the analysis of Svensmark et al. (2009). Perhaps I’m missing something? Anyway, this is only a minor detail, and the rest of the analysis of Calogovic et al. (2010) seems more convincing. Their conclusion is supported by Kulmala et al. (2010): “galactic cosmic rays appear to play a minor role for atmospheric aerosol formation events, and so for the connected aerosol-climate effects as well”. Kulmala’s group in Finland boasts many world-renowned aerosol physicists.

The study by Kulmala et al. (2010) was based on near-ground measurements of aerosols, magnetic field, cosmic rays, sunlight intensity (solar radiation), and ionization over a 13-year long period (~1 solar cycle). They also used airborne Neutral cluster and Air Ion Spectrometer, LIDAR and Forward Scattering Spectrometer Probe measurements. They failed to detect any correlation between cosmic ray ionization intensity and atmospheric aerosol formation.

Feulner and Rahmstorf address a speculation stated by Lean: the possibility of solar forcing countering anthropogenic global warming. Their paper examines the effect a solar grand minimum (low solar activity similar to that inferred for the Maunder Minimum) would have on the global mean temperature by 2100. By accounting for a corresponding reduction in forcing for the future in a climate model study, they conclude that the effect is negligible (less than 0.3K compared to 3.7 – 4.5K if the SRES A1b or A2 emission scenarios were assumed).

So what can we learn from these articles? What we see is how science often works – increases in knowledge by increments and independent studies re-affirming previous findings, namely that changes in the sun play a minor role in climate change on decadal to centennial scales. After all, 2009 was the second-warmest year on record, and by far the warmest in the southern hemisphere, despite the record solar minimum. The solar signal for the past 25 years is not just small but negative (i.e. cooling), but this has not noticeably slowed down global warming. But there are also many unknowns remaining, and the largest uncertainties concern clouds, cloud physics, and their impact on climate. In this sense, I find it ironic that some people still rely on the cosmic rays argument as their strongest argument against AGW – it does involve poorly known clouds physics!

This article was originally posted on Real Climate