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Cosmic rays and climate


I seem to have opened Pandora’s Box by saying I’d like to engage readers in the debate over man-made global warming and climate change, and happily so. Several people have sent interesting letters and links to very useful websites, some representing climatologists and other scientists who believe anthropogenic CO2 emissions are affecting the climate systems and others offering links to “skeptic” sites. The more I read, the more my head spins. I think one thing I can say without reservation is that this issue, which is so very important, is very poorly described to the lay person and non-expert. It seems you can find compelliing facts to fit whatever view to which you’re inclined. In his book State of Fear, science fiction writer Michael Crichton — no slouch when it comes to understanding science and using it for story plots (Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, etc.) — takes the position, in a fiction format admittedly, that the science has been hyped and abused by a sort of conspiracy of government scientists and fund-raising environmental groups who benefit from the exaggeration.
With my own thoughts about the issue bouncing around like a metal sphere in a pinball machine, I was amused and interested by this article that appeared in yesterday’s National Post that suggests the biggest climate driver might be fluctuating rays emitted from nearby stars, which need a great deal more study. You might dismiss this as “wacky” science, but take a look at the guy’s credentials!
Cosmic rays set climate change on Earth, expert says
Scientist challenges greenhouse-gas theory
Tom Spears
Ottawa Citizen; CanWest News Service
Thursday, March 16, 2006
OTTAWA – Stars, not greenhouse gases, are heating up the Earth.
So says prominent University of Ottawa science professor Jan Veizer.
He knows challenging the accepted climate-change theory may lead to a nasty fight.
It’s a politically and economically loaded topic. Yet, he is speaking out about his published research. “Look, maybe I’m wrong,” he said. “But I’m saying, at least let’s look at this and discuss it.
“Every one of these things (parts of his theory) has its problems. But so does every other model” of how Earth’s climate behaves.
Veizer says high-energy rays from distant parts of space are smashing into our atmosphere in ways that make our planet go through warm and cool cycles.
Cosmic rays are hitting us all the time — a well-known fact. What’s new is that researchers are asking what cosmic rays do to our world and its weather.
– Last year, the British science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society published a theory that cosmic rays “unambiguously” form clouds and affect our climate.
– Florida Tech and the University of Florida are jointly investigating whether cosmic rays are the trigger that makes a charged thundercloud let rip with lightning.
– In 2003, scientists from NASA and the University of Kansas suggested that cosmic rays “influence cloud formation, can affect climate and harm live organisms directly via increase of radiation dose,” an effect they claim to trace over millions of years of fossil history.
Veizer has published his theory in Geoscience Canada, the journal of the Geological Association of Canada. The article is called Celestial Climate Driver: A Perspective from Four Billion Years of the Carbon Cycle.
In his paper, he concludes: “Empirical observations on all time scales point to celestial phenomena as the principal driver of climate, with greenhouse gases acting only as potential amplifiers.”
The idea is that cosmic rays hit gas molecules in the atmosphere and form the nucleus of what becomes a water vapour droplet. These in turn form clouds, reflecting some of the sun’s energy back to space and cooling the Earth.
Yet the numbers of cosmic rays vary.
When there are more cosmic rays the Earth is colder. When there are fewer cosmic rays the Earth is warmer.
“The question is, therefore, ‘Where do we have lots of cosmic rays?’ ”
Most rays come from younger stars, which are clustered at some regions in the galaxy through which our solar system has passed its 4.5-billion-year history.
Our own sun deflects some of these rays away, but the sun’s activity grows stronger and weaker. All of these factors can change the number of cosmic rays that hit us.
The Earth’s magnetic field also blocks some cosmic rays. Scientists can reconstruct records of that field for the past 200,000 years, and he argues there’s an extremely close match between cold times in our climate and times when the magnetic field allowed more cosmic rays to hit us.
Even in recent times he argues that other cosmic factors can affect our climate as plausibly as carbon dioxide, or more so. The warming of Earth in the past 100 years — about 0.6 degrees Celsius — matches a time of the sun’s growing intensity, he says.
Questioning the fundamentals of climate change — the theory that man-made gases such as carbon dioxide are building up and warming our climate — is a fast way to start a nasty, personal fight in the science world.
But Veizer’s credentials make it tough to challenge his findings.
The recently retired professor still holds a research chair and supervises grad students and postdoctoral fellows. A native of Bratislava, Veizer left because Russian troops entered Czechoslovakia in 1968. He’s been building up honours ever since in the field of geochemistry — learning about Earth’s past by the chemistry preserved in rocks and sediments.
The Royal Society of Canada called him “one of the most creative, innovative and productive geoscientists of our times,” and added: “He has generated entirely new concepts that have proven key in our understanding the geochemical history of Earth.”
He won the 1992 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize, worth $2.2 million Cdn, representing the German government’s highest prize for research in any field. The prize ended up financing his research.
The judges said he “has in front of his eyes the overall picture of the Earth during its entire 4.5 billion years of evolution,” and he is “one of the most creative … geologists of his time.”
Yet, for years he held back on his climate doubts. “I was scared,” he says.
© The Edmonton Journal 2006


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