Big news from NASA about the causes of climate change!

Readers of this site know that the media has not accurately described the full range of climate research.  Their clear narrative required suppressing knowledge of past cycles and investigations into causes of recent warming other than CO2.  But behind the media veil science continues to advance.   This post is one in a series describing the influence of the Sun on our climate (at the end are links to the full series).

This information will surprise those who rely on the US media to learn about the news.  But as the narrative slowly cracks even they will learn, as stories like this slowly spread (hat tip for these to Anthony Watts).

These are based on this article from the NASA website:  Solar Variability: Striking a Balance with Climate Change, Rani Gran, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

The sun has powered almost everything on Earth since life began, including its climate. The sun also delivers an annual and seasonal impact, changing the character of each hemisphere as Earth’s orientation shifts through the year. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, new forces have begun to exert significant influence on Earth’s climate.

“For the last 20 to 30 years, we believe greenhouse gases have been the dominant influence on recent climate change,” said Robert Cahalan, climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

For the past 3 decades NASA scientists have investigated the unique relationship between the sun and Earth. Using space-based tools, like the Solar Radiation and Climate Experiment (SORCE), they have studied how much solar energy illuminates Earth, and explored what happens to that energy once it penetrates the atmosphere. The amount of energy that reaches Earth’s outer atmosphere is called the total solar irradiance. Total solar irradiance is variable over many different timescales, ranging from seconds to centuries due to changes in solar activity.

The sun goes through roughly an 11-year cycle of activity, from stormy to quiet and back again. Solar activity often occurs near sunspots, dark regions on the sun caused by concentrated magnetic fields. The solar irradiance measurement is much higher during solar maximum, when sunspot cycle and solar activity is high, versus solar minimum, when the sun is quiet and there are usually no sunspots.

“The fluctuations in the solar cycle impacts Earth’s global temperature by about 0.1 degree Celsius, slightly hotter during solar maximum and cooler during solar minimum,” said Thomas Woods, solar scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “The sun is currently at its minimum, and the next solar maximum is expected in 2012.”

Using SORCE, scientists have learned that about 1,361 watts per square meter of solar energy reaches Earth’s outermost atmosphere during the sun’s quietest period. But when the sun is active, 1.3 watts per square meter (0.1 percent) more energy reaches Earth. “This TSI measurement is very important to climate models that are trying to assess Earth-based forces on climate change,” said Cahalan.

Over the past century, Earth’s average temperature has increased by approximately 0.6 degrees Celsius (1.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Solar heating accounts for about 0.15 C, or 25 percent, of this change, according to computer modeling results published by NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies researcher David Rind in 2004. Earth’s climate depends on the delicate balance between incoming solar radiation, outgoing thermal radiation and the composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Even small changes in these parameters can affect climate. Around 30 percent of the solar energy that strikes Earth is reflected back into space. Clouds, atmospheric aerosols, snow, ice, sand, ocean surface and even rooftops play a role in deflecting the incoming rays. The remaining 70 percent of solar energy is absorbed by land, ocean, and atmosphere.

“Greenhouse gases block about 40 percent of outgoing thermal radiation that emanates from Earth,” Woods said. The resulting imbalance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing thermal radiation will likely cause Earth to heat up over the next century, accelerating the melting polar ice caps, causing sea levels to rise and increasing the probability of more violent global weather patterns.

Non-Human Influences on Climate Change

Before the Industrial Age, the sun and volcanic eruptions were the major influences on Earth’s climate change. Earth warmed and cooled in cycles. Major cool periods were ice ages, with the most recent ending about 11,000 years ago.

“Right now, we are in between major ice ages, in a period that has been called the Holocene,” said Cahalan. “Over recent decades, however, we have moved into a human-dominated climate that some have termed the Anthropocene. The major change in Earth’s climate is now really dominated by human activity, which has never happened before.”

The sun is relatively calm compared to other stars. “We don’t know what the sun is going to do a hundred years from now,” said Doug Rabin, a solar physicist at Goddard. “It could be considerably more active and therefore have more influence on Earth’s climate.”

Or, it could be calmer, creating a cooler climate on Earth similar to what happened in the late 17th century. Almost no sunspots were observed on the sun’s surface during the period from 1650 to 1715. This extended absence of solar activity may have been partly responsible for the Little Ice Age in Europe and may reflect cyclic or irregular changes in the sun’s output over hundreds of years. During this period, winters in Europe were longer and colder by about 1 C than they are today.

Since then, there seems to have been on average a slow increase in solar activity. Unless we find a way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning, the solar influence is not expected to dominate climate change. But the solar variations are expected to continue to modulate both warming and cooling trends at the level of 0.1 to 0.2 degrees Celsius (0.18 to 0.26 Fahrenheit) over many years.

Future Measurements of Solar Variability

For three decades, a suite of NASA and European Space Agency satellites have provided scientists with critical measurements of total solar irradiance. The Total Irradiance Monitor, also known as the TIM instrument, was launched in 2003 as part of the NASA’s SORCE mission, and provides irradiancemeasurements with state-of-the-art accuracy. TIM has been rebuilt as part of the Glory mission, scheduled to launch in 2009. Glory’s TIM instrument will continue an uninterrupted 30-year record of solar irradiance measurements and will help researchers better understand the sun’s direct and indirect effects on climate. Glory will also collect data on aerosols, one of the least understood pieces of the climate puzzle.

Related links:

For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

For other posts about the sun see section 4 — The Solar Cycle — on the FM reference page Science & nature – studies & reports.

  1. Worrying about the Sun and climate change: cycle 24 is late, 10 July 2008
  2. Update: is Solar Cycle 24 late (a cooling cycle, with famines, etc)?, 15 July 2008
  3. Solar Cycle 24 is still late, perhaps signalling cool weather ahead, 2 September 2008
  4. Update on solar cycle 24 – and a possible period of global cooling, 1 October 2008
  5. This week’s report on the news in climate science, 7 December 2008
  6. Weekend reading recommenations about climate change, 13 December 2008
  7. An important new article about climate change, 29 December 2008
  8. My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
  9. About the recent conference ”Solar Activity during the onset of Solar Cycle 24″, 3 January 2009
  10. Important new climate science articles, 11 January 2009
  11. NASA: Sun undergoing a “deep solar minimum”, 13 April 2009
  12. The Unusually Quiet Sun finally gets some attention, 23 April 2009
  13. A brief look at the Sun’s influence on Earth’s climate, 4 May 2009
  14. An important puzzle from the National Weather Service’s Space Weather Prediction Center, 10 May 2009



9 thoughts on “Big news from NASA about the causes of climate change!”

  1. Very interesting. Under President Obama, NASA is unlikely to contradict the prevailing theme of climate catastrophe. A few individual NASA scientists may brave the bureaucracy to speak out, but they have to be careful.
    Fabius Maximus replies: NASA is a center both of the pro-AGW camp (e.g., James Hansen is Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies) and some of the competing theories (e.g., solar studies, as seen in this post and this website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory). I have heard of no interferece of the latter by the former. It’s possible, as the climate science debate heats up due to public policy action by the Obama Adminstration and the Democratic Party’s majority in Congress.

  2. This looks like a preemptive move to assert an upper bound on the importance of solar cycles on climate. No mention of cosmic rays interacting with solar magnetic fields to affect cloud coverage, just statements that variation in solar radiance alone cannot produce more that a few tenths of a degree impact on mean temperatures. The relevant sub-link from comment #1. above is here. Note the strong correlation between solar magnetic field induced variation in cosmic radiation and temperature variation. Way more than 0.1 degrees C.

    Webpage for the Center for Sun-Climate Research of the Technical University of Denmark.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree with your interpretation. It’s progress, however, that they even acknowledge it to the public. Corresponding to this are mentions of the solar influence (and solar cycle) in the mainstream media. This tends, IMO, to muddy the “climate stable in nature, only CO2 forcing” narrative. Perhaps soon the mainstream media will begin mentioning the Earth’s climate swings during the past two or three millenia!

  3. Fran Manns, Ph.D., P.Geo. (Ontario)

    …the rest of the story. Climate is changing and always will. The climate celebrities, however, are linking climate and the economy. Yes, there has been warming to end the Pleistocene. Climate is a multiple input, multiple loop, multiple output, complex system. The facts and the hypotheses, however, do not support CO2 as a serious ‘pollutant’. In fact, it is plant fertilizer and seriously important to all life on the planet. It is the red herring used to unwind our economy. That issue makes the science relevant.
    Sulphate from volcanoes can have a catastrophic effect, but water vapour is far more important. Water vapour (0.4% overall by volume in air, but 1 – 4 % near the surface) is the most effective green house blanket followed by methane (0.0001745%). The third ranking gas is CO2 (0.0383%), and it does not correlate well with global warming or cooling either; in fact, CO2 in the atmosphere trails warming which is clear natural evidence for its well-studied inverse solubility in water: CO2 dissolves rapidly in cold water and bubbles rapidly out of warm water. The equilibrium in seawater is very high; making seawater a great ‘sink’; CO2 is 34 times more soluble in water than air is soluble in water.
    CO2 has been rising and Earth and her oceans have been warming. However, the correlation trails. Correlation, moreover, is not causation. The causation is under experimental review, however, and while the radiation from the sun varies only in the fourth decimal place, the magnetism is awesome.
    “Using a box of air in a Copenhagen lab, physicists traced the growth of clusters of molecules of the kind that build cloud condensation nuclei. These are specks of sulphuric acid on which cloud droplets form. High-energy particles driven through the laboratory ceiling by exploded stars far away in the Galaxy – the cosmic rays – liberate electrons in the air, which help the molecular clusters to form much faster than climate scientists have modeled in the atmosphere. That may explain the link between cosmic rays, cloudiness and climate change.”
    As I understand it, the hypothesis of the Danish National Space Center goes as follows:
    Quiet sun allows the geomagnetic shield to drop. Incoming galactic cosmic ray flux creates more low-level clouds, more snow, and more albedo effect as more is heat reflected resulting in a colder climate.
    Active sun has an enhanced magnetic field which induces Earth’s geomagnetic shield response. Earth has fewer low-level clouds, less rain, snow and ice, and less albedo (less heat reflected) producing a warmer climate.
    That is how the bulk of climate change works, coupled with (modulated by) sunspot peak frequency there are cycles of global warming and cooling like waves in the ocean. When the waves are closely spaced, the planets warm; when the waves are spaced farther apart, the planets cool.
    The change on cloud cover is only a small percentage, and the ultimate cause of the solar magnetic cycle may be cyclicity in the Sun-Jupiter centre of gravity. We await more on that.
    Although the post 60s warming period appears to be over, it has allowed the principal green house gas, water vapour, to kick in with more humidity, clouds, rain and snow depending on where you live to provide the negative feedback that scientists use to explain the existence of complex life on Earth for 550 million years. Ancient sedimentary rocks and paleontological evidence indicate the planet has had abundant liquid water over the entire span. The planet heats and cools naturally and our gasses are the thermostat.
    Check the web site of the Danish National Space Center. NASA has ignored all work outside the biased US establishment.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The relationship of solar activity to cosmic rays to Earth’s clould cover is a theory, nothing more. And controversial. To see a few studies about this go to secion V of the FM reference page Science & nature – studies & reports.

  4. FM: “The relationship of solar activity to cosmic rays to Earth’s clould cover is a theory, nothing more.”

    You betray you lack of understanding as to things scientific, FM. After all, evolution is “just a theory, nothing more” as well. And controversial.

    Your self-citation notwithstanding, a scientific “theory” that is borne out by evidence is a little closer what we typically call a fact. Sure climate change isn’t a black and white issue, and when it comes to the finer points there will always be disagreements among scientists. But the media works in broad strokes and though it may be an oversimplification it is more correct to say that “there is a scientific consensus that climate change is a problem” than to say “minor disagreements among scientists mean that the global warming denialists are right and we should let the big corporations pollute all they like.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: First, this was not a self-citation. It referred to page with links to 126 articles, most from peer-reviewed journals or authorative conference reports; 28 of which these discuss the relationship of Earth’s climate and extra-terrestrial factors — and these include the principle ones describing the putative relationship of cosmic rays on earth’s climate. Most of these have been discussed — or at leasted cited — in a post (or in a pending draft). Until you produce something of similar scope, I would appreciate a bit more respect for the work on this site.

    “You betray you lack of understanding as to things scientific, FM. After all, evolution is “just a theory, nothing more” as well. And controversial.”

    Second, even by the standards of this site that is a pedantic reply. Evolution is not controversial among scientists, and even less so among those in the relevant fields. One the other hand, the solar-sun connection is controversial among the relevant experts. I prefer to wait for them to resolve the debate rather than accept your absurdly certain statements.

  5. Fran Manns, geologist (Ontario)

    CO2 may not even be a greenhouse gas. Keep reading and integrating.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Can you cite relevant expert who says that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas? The primary effect is small, due to its low presence in the atmosphere (the assumed role of anthropogenic CO2 is amplified by feedback increasing the amount of water vapor.

  6. I ignore all your argumentum ad hominem. CO2 is de minimis at ppm; read the UN IPCC reports. The water feedback is negative. Warming a humid world causes clouds and precipitation – a negative feedback to any CO2 induced warming. There are serious criticisms of greenhouse gas theory: what sort of CO2 blanket allows heat to escape to space on a clear night and traps heat on a cloudy night.

    The hypothesis about the initiation of ice ages is simply that warming causes humidity which results in precipitation in the form of ice and snow in high latitudes. There is experimental support from the Danish geophysicists in the cosmic ray experiment. A number of heavy duty labs wil continue the experimental work when the Hadron collider start up again in (July).

    Incidently , the Danish experiment inn their basement cloud chamber published in Britain was not negated by an afterthought artical by George Monbiot in “The Guardian”. George Monbiot has misspoken the Danish research whether by mistake or design from the very start because it does not fit his model of single world government. There has never been any experinmental support for CO2 as a greenhouse gas. If you caN FIND ANY, POST IT. To the contrary, co2 does not seem to matter at all EXCEPT TO POLITICIANS.
    Fabius Maximus replies: As I said above, these are just empty assertions (aka chaff) unless you can provide some supporting evidence. You can huff and puff, but nobody cares.

    On the other hand, my assertions that there is intense debate among clients scientists is supporting by dozens of references — to conferences, blog posts, and peer-reviewed literature. For links to these see the FM reference page Science & nature – studies & reports.

    “I ignore all your argumentum ad hominem.”

    What? All I did was ask for citations from relevant experts. That’s not even an attack, let alone an ad hominem. You have just made claims, with no supporting links or evidence. You are not God, whom we must accept on faith.

  7. {FM: I have reformated this citation for greater clarity, and included a link}
    Falsification Of The Atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects Within The Frame Of Physics“, Authors: Gerhard Gerlich, Ralf D. Tscheuschner, last revised 4 Mar 2009 (version 4), International Journal of Modern Physics B (IJMPB)


    The atmospheric greenhouse effect, an idea that many authors trace back to the traditional works of Fourier (1824), Tyndall (1861), and Arrhenius (1896), and which is still supported in global climatology, essentially describes a fictitious mechanism, in which a planetary atmosphere acts as a heat pump driven by an environment that is radiatively interacting with but radiatively equilibrated to the atmospheric system. According to the 2nd law of thermodynamics such a planetary machine can never exist. Nevertheless, in almost all texts of global climatology and in a widespread secondary literature it is taken for granted that such mechanism is real and stands on a firm scientific foundation.

    In this paper the popular conjecture is analyzed and the underlying physical principles are clarified. By showing that
    (a) there are no common physical laws between the warming phenomenon in glass houses and the fictitious atmospheric greenhouse effects,
    (b) there are no calculations to determine an average surface temperature of a planet,
    (c) the frequently mentioned difference of 33 degrees Celsius is a meaningless number calculated wrongly,
    (d) the formulas of cavity radiation are used inappropriately,
    (e) the assumption of a radiative balance is unphysical,
    (f) thermal conductivity and friction must not be set to zero, the atmospheric greenhouse conjecture is falsified.

    Fabius Maximus replies: This is a great reference; thank you for posting. I’ve heard there was debate about this, but have never followed up those leads. I’ll add it to the list in the FM reference page.

  8. That “I am not god” is ad hominem.
    Fabius Maximus replies: It’s a sarcastic remark about your repeated assertions without evidence, not a rebuttal to your views.

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