# The CERN/CLOUD results are surprisingly interesting…

However, aerosol nucleation experiments are not usually front page news, and the likely high public profile of this paper is only loosely related to the science that is actually being done. Rather, the excitement is based on the expectation that this work will provide some insight into the proposed cosmic ray/cloud/climate link that Svensmark (for instance) has claimed is the dominant driver of climate change (though note he is not an author on this paper, despite an earlier affiliation with the project). Indeed, the first justification for the CLOUD experiment was that: “The basic purpose of the CLOUD detector … is to conﬁrm, or otherwise, a direct link between cosmic rays and cloud formation by measuring droplet formation in a controlled test-beam environment”. It is eminently predictable that the published results will be wildly misconstrued by the contrarian blogosphere as actually proving this link. However, that would be quite wrong.

We were clear in the 2006 post that establishing a significant GCR/cloud/climate link would require the following steps (given that we have known that ionisation plays a role in nucleation for decades). One would need to demonstrate:

1. … that increased nucleation gives rise to increased numbers of (much larger) cloud condensation nuclei (CCN)
2. … and that even in the presence of other CCN, ionisation changes can make a noticeable difference to total CCN
3. … and even if there were more CCN, you would need to show that this actually changed cloud properties significantly,
4. … and that given that change in cloud properties, you would need to show that it had a significant effect on radiative forcing.

Of course, to show that cosmic rays were actually responsible for some part of the recent warming, you would need to show that there was actually a decreasing trend in cosmic rays over recent decades – which is tricky, because there hasn’t been (see the figure).

Figure 2: Normalised changes in cosmic rays since 1953. There has not been a significant downward trend. The exceptional solar minimum in 2008-2010 stands out a little.

The CLOUD results are not in any position to address any of these points, and anybody jumping to the conclusions that they have all been settled will be going way out on a limb. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that (particularly) point 2 will not be satisfied (see for instance, Pierce and Adams (2009), and a new paper by Snow-Kropla et al).

So what changes did they show as a function of the CR activity? In going from neutral (shielded) conditions to ambient CR levels typical of the lower atmosphere, the ionisation changed by a factor of 2 to 10 (depending on the temperature – colder conditions are more sensitive). However this is a much bigger change (by an order of magnitude or more) than the percentage change in CR activity over a solar cycle (i.e. ~10-20%). A rough calculation (by way of Jeff Pierce) that takes into account the square root dependence of ion concentrations on GCRs and the neutral nucleation in the CLOUD results, suggests that for average conditions the solar modulation of GCR would impact nucleation by about 1% – rising to perhaps 12% for the biggest changes in GCR seen in figure 2 at very cold temperatures. Thus the nucleation change as a result of real world GCR modulation is going to be much smaller than seen in these experiments, and much less important than the amount of pollutants.

In summary, this is a great example of doing science and making progress, even if it isn’t what they first thought they’d find.

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