Space Science Reviews

, Volume 94, Issue 1, pp 231–258

Influence of Solar Wind on the Global Electric Circuit, and Inferred Effects on Cloud Microphysics, Temperature, and Dynamics in the Troposphere


  • Brian A. Tinsley
    • University of Texas at Dallas

DOI: 10.1023/A:1026775408875

Cite this article as:
Tinsley, B.A. Space Science Reviews (2000) 94: 231. doi:10.1023/A:1026775408875


There are at least three independent ways in which the solar wind modulates the flow of current density (Jz) in the global electric circuit. These are (A) changes in the galactic cosmic ray energy spectrum, (B) changes in the precipitation of relativistic electrons from the magnetosphere, and (C) changes in the ionospheric potential distribution in the polar caps due to magnetosphere-ionosphere coupling. The current density Jz flows between the ionosphere and the surface, and as it passes through conductivity gradients it generates space charge concentrations dependent on Jz and the conductivity gradient. The gradients are large at the surfaces of clouds and space charge concentrations of order 1000 to 10,000 elementary charges per cm3 can be generated at cloud tops. The charge transfers to droplets, many of which are evaporating at the cloud-clear air interface. The charge remains on the residual evaporation nuclei with a lifetime against leakage of order 1000 sec, and for a longer period the nuclei also retain coatings of sulfate and organic compounds adsorbed by the droplet while in the cloud.

The charged evaporation nuclei become well mixed with more droplets in many types of clouds with penetrative mixing. The processes of entrainment and evaporation are also efficient for these clouds. The collection of such nuclei by nearby droplets is greatly increased by the electrical attraction between the charge on the particle and the image charge that it creates on the droplet. This process is called electroscavenging. Because the charge on the evaporation nuclei is derived from the original space charge, it depends on Jz, giving a rate of electroscavenging responsive to the solar wind inputs.

There may be a number of ways in which the electroscavenging has consequences for weather and climate. One possibility is enhanced production of ice. The charged evaporation nuclei have been found to be good ice forming nuclei because of their coatings, and so in supercooled clouds droplet freezing can occur by contact ice nucleation, as the evaporation nuclei are electroscavenged. Although quantitative models for the all the cloud microphysical processes that may be involved have not yet been produced, we show that for many clouds, especially those with broad droplet size distributions, relatively high droplet concentrations, and cloud top temperatures just below freezing, this process is likely to dominate over other primary ice nucleation processes. In these cases there are likely to be effects on cloud albedo and rates of sedimentation of ice, and these will depend on Jz.

For an increase in ice production in thin clouds such as altocumulus or stratocumulus the main effect is a decrease in albedo to incoming solar radiation, and in opacity to outgoing longwave radiation. At low latitudes the surface and troposphere heat, and at high latitudes in winter they cool. The change in meridional temperature gradient affects the rate of cyclogenesis, and the amplitude of planetary waves. For storm clouds, as in winter cyclones, the effect of increased ice formation is mainly to increase the rate of glaciation of lower level clouds by the seeder-feeder process. The increase in precipitation efficiency increases the rate of transfer of latent heat between the air mass and the surface. In most cyclones this is likely to result in intensification, producing changes in the vorticity area index as observed. Cyclone intensification also increases the amplitude of planetary waves, and shifts storm tracks, as observed.

In this paper we first describe the production of space charge and the way in which it may influence the rate of ice nucleation. Then we review theory and observations of the solar wind modulation of Jz, and the correlated changes in atmospheric temperature and dynamics in the troposphere. The correlations are present for each input, (A, B, and C), and the detailed patterns of responses provide support for the inferred electrical effects on the physics of clouds, affecting precipitation, temperature and dynamics.

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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2000