Solar activity has a direct impact on Earth's cloud cover

August 25, 2016 by Morten Garly Andersen, Technical University of Denmark
Credit: Technical University of Denmark

A team of scientists from the National Space Institute at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU Space) and the Racah Institute of Physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has linked large solar eruptions to changes in Earth's cloud cover in a study based on over 25 years of satellite observations.

The solar eruptions are known to shield Earth's atmosphere from . However the new study, published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, shows that the global cloud cover is simultaneously reduced, supporting the idea that cosmic rays are important for . The eruptions cause a reduction in cloud fraction of about 2 percent corresponding to roughly a billion tonnes of liquid water disappearing from the atmosphere.

Since clouds are known to affect global temperatures on longer timescales, the present investigation represents an important step in the understanding of clouds and climate variability.

"Earth is under constant bombardment by particles from space called . Violent eruptions at the Sun's surface can blow these cosmic rays away from Earth for about a week. Our study has shown that when the cosmic rays are reduced in this way there is a corresponding reduction in Earth's cloud cover. Since clouds are an important factor in controlling the temperature on Earth our results may have implications for ", explains lead author on the study Jacob Svensmark of DTU.

Very energetic particles

These particles generate electrically charged molecules—ions—in Earth's atmosphere. Ions have been shown in the laboratory to enhance the formation of aerosols, which can serve as seeds for the formation of the cloud drops that make up a cloud. Whether this actually happens in the atmosphere, or only in the laboratory is a topic that has been investigated and debated for years.

When the large blow away the galactic cosmic rays before they reach Earth they cause a reduction in atmospheric ions of up to about 20 to -30 percent over the course of a week. So if ions affect cloud formation it should be possible to observe a decrease in cloud cover during events when the Sun blows away cosmic rays, and this is precisely what is done in this study.

Credit: Technical University of Denmark

The so-called 'Forbush decreases' of the cosmic rays have previously been linked to week-long changes in Earth's but the effect has been debated at length in the scientific literature. The new study concludes that "there is a real impact of Forbush decreases on cloud microphysics" and that the results support the suggestion that "ions play a significant role in the life-cycle of clouds".

Arriving at that conclusion was, however, a hard endeavor; Very few strong Forbush decreases occur and their effect on cloud formation is expected to be close to the limit of detection using global atmospheric observations measured by satellites and land based stations. Therefore it was of the greatest importance to select the strongest events for study since they had to have the most easily detected effect. Determining this strength required combining data from about 130 stations in combination with atmospheric modeling.

This new method resulted in a list of 26 events in the period of 1987-2007 ranked according to ionization. This ranked list was important for the detection of a signal, and may also shed some light on why previous studies have arrived at varied conclusions, since they have relied on events that were not necessarily ranked high on the list.

Possible long term effect

The effect from Forbush decreases on clouds is too brief to have any impact on long-term temperature changes.

However since clouds are affected by short term changes in galactic cosmic radiation, they may well also be affected by the slower change in Solar activity that happens on scales from tens to hundreds of years, and thus play a role in the radiation budget that determines the global temperature.

The Suns contribution to past and future climate change may thus be larger than merely the direct changes in radiation, concludes the scientists behind the new study.

Explore further: There's a funny atmosphere on Neptune...

More information: J. Svensmark et al, The response of clouds and aerosols to cosmic ray decreases, Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics (2016). DOI: 10.1002/2016JA022689

Related Stories

There's a funny atmosphere on Neptune...

July 22, 2016

It has been the farthest planet from the Sun since Pluto's 'relegation', but despite Neptune's remoteness in our solar system, it still holds plenty of interest for physicists – not least because of the unusual things going ...

Cosmic meddling with the clouds by seven-day magic

August 1, 2009

Billions of tonnes of water droplets vanish from the atmosphere, as if by magic, in events that reveal in detail how the Sun and the stars control our everyday clouds. Researchers of the National Space Institute in the Technical ...

Did cirrus clouds help keep early Mars warm and wet?

August 16, 2016

Many features on the surface of Mars hint at the presence of liquid water in the past. These range from the Valles Marineris, a 4,000 km long and 7 km deep system of canyons, to the tiny hematite spherules called "blueberries". ...

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Physicists reveal why matter dominates universe

March 21, 2019

Physicists in the College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University have confirmed that matter and antimatter decay differently for elementary particles containing charmed quarks.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2016
The Sun affecting the weather, and past and future climate change? What a silly notion.
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 25, 2016
The Suns contribution to past and future climate change may thus be larger than merely the direct changes in radiation, concludes the scientists behind the new study.

BANG...BANG...BANG...another nail in the AGW Cult's CO2 filled coffin of lies. Quick, somebody warn the Chicken Littles to stay away, this stuff is toxic to them.
1 / 5 (4) Aug 25, 2016
The effect from Forbush decreases on clouds is too brief to have any impact on long-term temperature changes.

But the effect from long-term SF droughts will surely have an impact. Certainly another proof that the Maunder Min was a direct cause of the LIA.
2 / 5 (4) Aug 26, 2016
Whaaatt? How can this be, another unconsidered factor. But we're doomed, we must return to pre-industrial revolution type economy to prevent something we know is inevitable yet don't fully understand the basics. Good plan.
1 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2016
I don't understand, why only us "deniers" commenting on this article? Is it too much of an inconvenient truth?
1 / 5 (2) Aug 27, 2016
Maybe PhysOrg wants to hide the article as well...

Conveniently omitted despite a "recently commented".
1 / 5 (1) Aug 27, 2016
We are currently experiencing abnormally low cosmic radiation levels...even with decreasing solar activity
Manfred Particleboard
5 / 5 (1) Aug 28, 2016
Gnnnnugh! (grinds palm into forehead.) Just one more time I'll explain it again.
Humans have been affecting the biosphere with industrial activity to such an extent that one outcome is a change in the heat balance of the atmosphere at a rate that is unprecedented. This is a concern because increased average global temperatures is not a good thing for diversity of life as we have known it to be historically and because we know that the rate is too fast for many organisms and systems to adapt. Because there are other factors that affect the biosphere, messing so strongly with it by our actions makes the sum total of all natural forces more unpredictable, so reason tells us we should be more prudent with our actions and just plain clean up after ourselves. No it's not a marxist plot to take your money, no it's not a cult like belief, it's logic and backed by so many disciplines of science...which you are going to totally ignore anyway. Well I tried.
not rated yet Aug 29, 2016
It would take a "large solar event" lasting for decades to explain the present temperature rise. This has not happened.

Well if you look at it on average, the period of the "rise" also coincides with a grand solar maximum.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.