Monday, October 09, 2006

Climate Science--Emphasis On Science

A friend asked me to keep an eye out for articles about climate science (emphasis on the science, and not the hype.) I'm happy to oblige. It's a topic I keep an eye on anyway. Beside the fact I have a genuine interest in the state of our planet, both the alarmists and the total naysayers have their entertainment value, after all. However, I frequently can give little credence to what I read, because so little of it is based on experimentation, and so much of it on anecdotal evidence and politics.

At first much of the debate rested in whether the Earth is warming at all. Then it shifted to the cause, as weather records over the last few decades do show a decided warming trend. Some people are still heavily engaged in the "why" debate, but many have moved on to what, if anything, we should/can do about it. Much of the world has simply accepted--It's Our Fault. Eliminate humans and you eliminate the problem. (Making the assumption, of course, that it is a problem.) Since ridding the world of humanity is hardly practical, the next best solution offered by some is to make people stop living the modern life, something very few of the uncooperative scourges of the Earth are willing to do (except the ones who want to take us back to the seventh century, but that's a different topic altogether.) So we spend a lot of time blaming and very little time checking our facts.

Sometimes, however, we get a look at actual verifiable science on the topic. It's very refreshing. Here's an example. SpaceDaily has a look at experiments performed in Denmark that conclusively link cosmic rays to cloud formation, and thus Earth's temperature:

It is already well-established that when cosmic rays, which are high-speed atomic particles originating in exploded stars far away in the Milky Way, penetrate Earth's atmosphere they produce substantial amounts of ions and release free electrons.

Now, results from the Danish experiment show that the released electrons significantly promote the formation of building blocks for cloud condensation nuclei on which water vapour condenses to make clouds.

Hence, a causal mechanism by which cosmic rays can facilitate the production of clouds in Earth's atmosphere has been experimentally identified for the first time.

Here's the lowdown. Scientists filled a large reaction chamber with the appropriate gases to approximate the chemistry of the lower atmosphere. They used ultraviolet lamps to perform the function of the Sun's rays in the equation, and as the "penetrating cosmic rays" did their thing, the scientists monitored the chemical reactions in the chamber with instruments that only "really smart people with degrees and stuff" know how to use. The experiment proved that cosmic rays help facilitate the development of the "stable, ultra-small clusters of sulphuric acid and water molecules which are building blocks for the cloud condensation nuclei. A vast numbers of such microscopic droplets appeared, floating in the air in the reaction chamber." Turns out the rays are very effective at producing these building blocks, and there is now empirical evidence that cosmic rays can have an effect on Earth's climate because of the clouds they help form.

It's interesting how that works. The more rays that get through to Earth's atmosphere, the more low-altitude cloud cover we get. Less rays equal less clouds. Those low altitude clouds drop the temperature here on Terra Firma. Here's the really intriguing bit:

Interestingly, during the 20th Century, the Sun's magnetic field which shields Earth from cosmic rays more than doubled, thereby reducing the average influx of cosmic rays.

The resulting reduction in cloudiness, especially of low-altitude clouds, may be a significant factor in the global warming Earth has undergone during the last century. However, until now, there has been no experimental evidence of how the causal mechanism linking cosmic rays and cloud formation may work.

Did you catch that? When the Sun's magnetic field is strong, we get less cosmic rays. Therefore, one can conclude that when the Sun's magnetic field is strong we get fewer clouds, and the Earth warms. That would link global warming to the cycles of the Sun, wouldn't it? I have read the theory before, and seen data that clearly showed that over the last four hundred years, as the Sun has cycled, so has Earth's temperature, and this experiment is some solid support for that theory. Unfortunately, I can't remember where I read the theory in the first place, but hopefully the SpaceDaily article will give you a good start on the subject.

I still think, of course, that we need to follow all the scientific leads, and find out for sure whether humans really are effecting the climate, or whether natural cycles such as the flux in the Sun's magnetic field are the reason for the temperature shifts we experience over the years. I don't think, however, that we ought to be making rash decisions that shut down the economies of the world because of fears that are as yet unproven. If global warming is a temporary and natural phase of the planet, caused by forces as far away as the Sun, no amount of turning off the air conditioning, riding the bus to work, or staying off of airplanes is going to change that natural rhythm. Of course, theories come and go. I remember being warned as a child that we were going to enter another ice age soon. We see how accurate that prediction turned out to be. I'm all for scientific investigation of the facts, but histrionics are pointless. I read recently that Al Gore told a group at the U.N. that cigarette smoking is a significant contributor to global warming. You tell me which of these two theories--cigarettes, or cosmic rays as realistic causes--has the most likelihood of veracity? Until I see solid scientific proof that smoking is the cause, I'm sticking with cosmic rays.

Hat tip: The Anchoress