In Part I, I discussed how aerosols nucleate and grow. In this post I’ll discuss how changes in nucleation and ionization might impact the net effects.
Galactic cosmic rays (GCR) are energetic particles originating from space entering Earth’s atmosphere. They are an important source of ionization in the atmosphere, besides terrestrial radioactivity from e.g. radon (naturally emitted by the Earth’s surface). Over the oceans and above 5 km altitude, GCR are the dominant source. Their intensity varies over the 11 year solar cycle, with a maximum near solar minimum. Carslaw et al. give a nice overview of potential relations between cosmic rays, clouds and climate. Over the first half of the 20th century solar irradiance has slightly increased, and cosmic rays have subsequently decreased. RC has had many previous posts on the purported links between GCR and climate, e.g. here, here and here.
The role of ions
The role played by ions relative to neutral (uncharged) molecules in the nucleation process is still very much under discussion. For instance, based on the same dataset, Yu and Turco found a much higher contribution of ion induced nucleation (to the total amount of particles produced) than Laakso et al did. Evidence for a certain nucleation mechanism is often of an indirect nature, and depends on uncertain parameters. Most literature points to a potential importance of ion induced nucleation in the upper troposphere, but the general feeling is that neutral pathways for nucleation (i.e. not involving ions) are likely to be dominant overall. Most field studies, however, have been performed over land, whereas over the open ocean nucleation rates are generally lower due to lower vapor concentrations. In theory at least, this gives more opportunity for ion induced nucleation to make a difference over the ocean (even though the ion production rate is smaller).
The ion production rate (increasing with altitude from ~10 to ~50 ion pairs per cubic centimeter per second over land) sets a limit to what the particle formation rate due to ion induced nucleation can be. Based on his model for ion induced nucleation, Yu found that at low altitude, the number of particles produced is most sensitive to changes in cosmic ray intensity. At first sight, this may be a surprising result in light of the increasing cosmic ray intensity with increasing altitude. The reason is that high aloft, the limiting factor for particle formation is the availability of sulfuric acid rather than ions. Above a certain GCR intensity, increasing ionization further could even lead to a decrease in ion induced nucleation, because the lifetime of ion clusters is reduced (due to increased recombination of positive and negative ions). In contrast, at low altitude particle formation may be limited by the ionization rate (under certain circumstances), and an increase in ionization leads to an increase in nucleation.
How important is nucleation for climate?
Different modeling exercises have been performed to investigate this question. The strong dependency on input data and assumptions used, e.g. relating to primary particle emissions and nucleation parameterizations, and the different sensitivities tested, hampers an overall assessment. However, it is clear that globally, nucleation is significant for the number of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) e.g. in the absence of boundary layer nucleation, the number of CCN would be 5% lower (Wang and Penner) or 3-20% lower (Spracklen et al.), and in a recent follow up study, they concluded that the number of cloud droplets would be 13-16% lower (in 2000 and 1850, respectively). Pierce and Adams took a different approach and looked at the variation of predicted number of CCN as a result of using different nucleation schemes. The tropospheric number of CCN varied by 17% (and the boundary layer CCN by 12%) amongst model runs using different nucleation rate parameterizations. Note that the globally averaged nucleation rates differed by a factor of a million (!).
It should be noted that the sensitivity of the number of CCN to nucleation depends greatly on the amount of primary emissions and secondary organic aerosol (SOA) formed. These are very uncertain themselves, which further limit our ability to understand the connection between nucleation and CCN. If there are more primary emissions, there will be more competition amongst aerosols to act as CCN. If more organic compounds partition to the aerosol phase (to form SOA), the growth to CCN sizes will be quicker.
Locally, particle formation has been observed to contribute significantly to the number of CCN; the second figure in Part I gives an example of freshly nucleated aerosols which grew large enough to influence cloud formation. Kerminen et al observed a similar event, followed by activation of part of the nucleated aerosols into cloud droplets, thus providing a direct link between aerosol formation and cloud droplet activation.
How important are cosmic rays for climate?
At the recent AGU meeting (Dec 2008), Jeff Pierce presented results on the potential effects of GCR on the number of CCN (their paper at GRL (sub. required)). Two different parameterizations for ion induced nucleation were used (Modgil et al and an ‘ion-limit’ assumption that all ions go on to form a new particle). They ran their model with both high and low cosmic ray flux, simulating conditions during solar maximum and minimum, respectively. This happens to be comparable to the change in cosmic ray flux over the 20th century (mostly confined to the first half), and amounts to a 20% change in tropospheric ion production. With both mechanisms of ion-induced nucleation, this leads to a 20% change in globally averaged particle nucleation, but only to a 0.05% change in globally averaged CCN. The authors concluded that this was “far too small to make noticeable changes in cloud properties based on either the decadal (solar cycle) or climatic time-scale changes in cosmic rays.” To account for some reported changes in cloud cover, a change in CCN on the order of 10% would be needed. More studies of this kind will undoubtedly come up with different numbers, but it’s perhaps less likely that the qualitative conclusion, as quoted above, will change dramatically. Time will tell, of course.
The bottom line
Freshly nucleated particles have to grow by about a factor of 100,000 in mass before they can effectively scatter solar radiation or be activated into a cloud droplet (and thus affect climate). They have about 1-2 weeks to do this (the average residence time in the atmosphere), but a large fraction will be scavenged by bigger particles beforehand. What fraction of nucleated particles survives to then interact with the radiative budget depends on many factors, notably the amount of condensable vapor (leading to growth of the new particles) and the amount of pre-existing particles (acting as a sink for the vapor as well as for the small particles). Model-based estimates of the effect of boundary layer nucleation on the concentration of cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) range between 3 and 20%. However, our knowledge of nucleation rates is still severely limited, which hampers an accurate assessment of its potential climate effects. Likewise, the potential effects of galactic cosmic rays (GCR) can only be very crudely estimated. A recent study found that a change in GCR intensity, as is typically observed over an 11 year solar cycle, could, at maximum, cause a change of 0.1% in the number of CCN. This is likely to be far too small to make noticeable changes in cloud properties.