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In 1859, John Tyndall’s laboratory experiments showed that water vapour and carbon dioxide absorb infra-red radiation and that they could therefore affect the climate of the Earth. As soon as his paper was published (1861) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, he put out a press release for the London newspapers explaining that this result implied that all past climate changes were now understood and all future climate changes could be predicted simply from a knowledge of the concentrations of these ‘greenhouse’ gases…
Fast forward to 2006: Svensmark and colleagues’ laboratory experiments show that highly ionizing radiation can create ultra-small aerosol particles. As soon as the paper is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, they put out a press release for the world’s newspapers explaining that this result implied that all past climate changes were now understood and all future climate changes could be predicted simply from a knowledge of the intensity of these ‘cosmic rays’….
History repeating itself? Well, not exactly. Tyndall actually restricted himself to describing his experiments and simply linking it to the work of Fourier a few decades earlier. It took more than another century before the credible quantitative estimates of these effects and their influence on past and possibly future climate were made, along with good enough observations of the gases to know that they have (and continue) to change significantly. However, Svensmark and colleagues, not wanting to wait for the credible quantitative results to come in, instead short circuited all of that tedious follow-up work, scaling up to realistic conditions, theoretical and modelling studies demonstrating that their effect was indeed viable, and simply declared in their press materials that the team had ‘discovered that cosmic rays play a big part in the everyday weather’ and ‘brings to a climax a scientific quest that has lasted two centuries’. Nobel prizes all round then.
Alas! if only it were that simple….
There was an interesting article in the NY Times this week on possible geo-engineering solutions to the global warming problem. The story revolves around a paper that Paul Crutzen (Nobel Prize winner for chemistry related to the CFC/ozone depletion link) has written about deliberately adding sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere to increase the albedo and cool the planet – analogous to the natural effects of volcanoes. The paper is being published in Climatic Change, but unusually, with a suite of commentary articles by other scientists. This is because geo-engineering solutions do not have a good pedigree and, regardless of their merit or true potential, are often seized upon by people who for various reasons do not want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, these ideas keep popping up naturally since significant emission cuts continue to be seen as difficult to acheive, and so should be considered fairly. After all, if there was a cheaper way to deal with the CO2 problem, or even a way to buy time, shouldn’t we take it? More »
There has been a lot in the news recently about current volcanic activity – Merapi in Indonesia and Bezymianny in the Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, but while most reports have focussed on the very real dangers to the local populace and air traffic, volcanoes can have important impacts on climate as well. However, there are a number of conditions that need to be fulfilled before an eruption will show up in the climate record. More »
Guest posting from Beate Liepert (LDEO)
On April 18th PBS will air the NOVA documentary “Dimming the Sun” which stirred up lively discussions among scientists and non-scientists when originally shown by BBC in the UK (under the name ‘Global Dimming’ – see our previous posts). [The NOVA version has been thoroughly re-edited and some of the more controversial claims have apparently been excised or better put into context [and we look forward to seeing it! - Ed.].
Global dimming is the phenomena of an observed reduction (about 1-2% per decade since ~1960) of sunlight reaching the surface of the Earth caused by air pollution (aerosols – small particles) and cloud changes. Some of this solar energy is reflected back out to space and this cooling effect is believed to have counteracted part of the greenhouse gas warming. The original version of the film focused mainly on the observational recognition of global dimming, but one aspect did not receive much attention in the film – namely the oft-claimed lack of global dimming in climate models. This led some to assume that climate modelers were ignoring air pollution other than greenhouse gases emissions from fossil fuel burning. Another implication was that climate models are not capable of adequately simulating the transfer of sunlight through the atmosphere and the role of clouds, sunlight extinction of aerosols and aerosol effects on clouds etc, and therefore model projections should not be trusted. The NOVA version will address this issue more prominently by adding an interview with Jim Hansen from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Along this line, I’d like to elaborate on aerosols in climate models in more detail. More »
Prof. Richard Lindzen (MIT) is often described as the most respectable of the climate ‘sceptics’ and is frequently cited in discussions here and elsewhere. Lindzen clearly has many fundamentally important papers under his belt (work on the QBO and basic atmospheric dynamics), and a number of papers that have been much less well received by the community (the ‘Iris’ effect etc.). Last year, he gave evidence to and answered questions from, a UK House of Lords Committee investigating the economics of climate change, in which he discoursed freely on the science. I’ll try here to sort out what he said. More »
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