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Cosmic Rays, Clouds, and Climate

Abstract

A correlation between a global average of low cloud cover and the flux of cosmic rays incident in the atmosphere has been observed during the last solar cycle. The ionising potential of Earth bound cosmic rays are modulated by the state of the heliosphere, while clouds play an important role in the Earth's radiation budget through trapping outgoing radiation and reflecting incoming radiation. If a physical link between these two features can be established, it would provide a mechanism linking solar activity and Earth's climate. Recent satellite observations have further revealed a correlation between cosmic ray flux and low cloud top temperature. The temperature of a cloud depends on the radiation properties determined by its droplet distribution. Low clouds are warm (>273 K) and therefore consist of liquid water droplets. At typical atmospheric supersaturations (∼1%) a liquid cloud drop will only form in the presence of an aerosol, which acts as a condensation site. The droplet distribution of a cloud will then depend on the number of aerosols activated as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) and the level of super saturation. Based on observational evidence it is argued that a mechanism to explain the cosmic ray-cloud link might be found through the role of atmospheric ionisation in aerosol production and/or growth. Observations of local aerosol increases in low cloud due to ship exhaust indicate that a small perturbation in atmospheric aerosol can have a major impact on low cloud radiative properties. Thus, a moderate influence on atmospheric aerosol distributions from cosmic ray ionisation would have a strong influence on the Earth's radiation budget. Historical evidence over the past 1000 years indicates that changes in climate have occurred in accord with variability in cosmic ray intensities. Such changes are in agreement with the sign of cloud radiative forcing associated with cosmic ray variability as estimated from satellite observations.

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Marsh, N., Svensmark, H. Cosmic Rays, Clouds, and Climate. Space Science Reviews 94, 215–230 (2000). https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1026723423896

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1026723423896

Keywords

  • Atmospheric Aerosol
  • Cloud Condensation Nucleus
  • Droplet Distribution
  • Liquid Water Droplet
  • Cloud Radiative Property