Nope, Cosmic Rays Still Not Driving Climate Change repost from The Way Things Break.

ConCERN Trolling on Cosmic Rays, Clouds, and Climate Change

Depending on where you get your science news, you might be hearing claims to the effect that CLOUD at CERN has “proven that cosmic rays drive climate change”, or something to that effect. That’s certainly the impression that climate “skeptics” would like you to get. Unfortunately for “skeptics” (and if we don’t rein in greenhouse emissions, everyone else), it’s not true. While cosmic rays may have some influence on cloud formation, they are not responsible for the present, human-driven climatic change or alleged changes in the geologic past.

What’s the deal?

Although seemingly out of fashion for a while until recently, the “cosmic rays are driving climate” myth has long been one of the mainstays of the self-contradictory climate “skeptic” argument stable, and it’s something covered fairly often at this blog (previous posts here, here, here, here, here, and here). And as with any good falsehood, it starts with a kernel of truth.
It is completely accepted in mainstream science that galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) might be able to influence the nucleation process of potential cloud condensation nuclei (CCN), and that it’s conceivable that this could influence cloud behavior at some level. As the IPCC AR4 noted (I’ll include the full text at the end, after the jump):

By altering the population of CCN and hence microphysical cloud properties (droplet number and concentration), cosmic rays may also induce processes analogous to the indirect effect of tropospheric aerosols. The presence of ions, such as produced by cosmic rays, is recognised as influencing several microphysical mechanisms (Harrison and Carslaw, 2003). Aerosols may nucleate preferentially on atmospheric cluster ions. In the case of low gas-phase sulphuric acid concentrations, ion-induced nucleation may dominate over binary sulphuric acid-water nucleation.

While a plausible mechanism exists, real world verifications are necessarily difficult to undertake. The CLOUD project at CERN is seeking to do exactly that. The “skeptic” and right wing blogospheres are abuzz because Jasper Kirkby, et al. have just published the first results in Nature (Kirkby 2011).

RealClimate has a good rundown of what Kirkby et al.’s results do and do not mean. The short version is that Kirkby et al. do find increased aerosol nucleation under increased ionization (i.e. “more cosmic rays”), particularly in the mid-troposphere, but the effect is smaller at warmer, lower levels where the cosmic ray-climate myth proponents claim it has its greatest climatic effect. Lead author Jasper Kirkby has tried to set the record straight, stating (all following emphases mine):

[The paper] actually says nothing about a possible cosmic-ray effect on clouds and climate, but it’s a very important first step.

While their results provide some confirmation of the potential mechanism by which GCRs might induce cloud nucleation, they in no way demonstrate that GCRs do significantly promote cloud formation in the real world, let alone support the myth that GCRs drive significant climatic change.
“But wait!” I’m sure some of you may be thinking, “the Kirkby et al. results certainly don’t disprove GCRs drive significant climatic changes.” And that’s true enough.

How Do We Know That Cosmic Rays Aren’t Driving Significant Climatic Change?

In reference to the present anthropogenic climatic changes that we’re driving through alteration of the planetary energy balance notably through greenhouse gas emissions, we can theorize what certain “fingerprints” of enhanced greenhouse warming should look like, and examine observational data to see whether those fingerprints show up. And they do.
Moreover, we can examine the claims made by Svensmark, Shaviv, and others who proclaim GCRs drive climate and see whether or not they hold up. They don’t:
We can look at the paleoclimatic record during periods of significant changes in GCR activity, and there is no corresponding change in climate, e.g. the Laschamp excursion ~40kya (Muscheler 2005).

We can examine the change in GCRs in response to solar variability over recent decades or the course of a solar cycle, and find there is no or little corresponding change in climate (Lockwood 2007, Lockwood 2008, Kulmala 2010).

We can look at alleged correlations between GCRs and climate in the geologic past due to our sun passing through galactic spiral arms, and find that these “correlations” were based on an unrealistic, overly-simplified model of spiral structure and are not valid (Overholt 2009). Standard climatic processes (like CO2) more parsimoniously explained the climatic changes even before taking the flawed spiral model into account (Rahmstorf 2004).

We can examine the specific mechanisms by which Svensmark and others have claimed GCRs influence climate via cloud behavior and show that alleged correlations between GCRs and clouds were incorrectly calculated or insufficiently large, proposed mechanisms (e.g. Forbush decreases) are too short lived, too small in magnitude, or otherwise incapable of altering cloud behavior on a large enough scale to drive significant climatic change (Sloan 2008, Erlykin 2009, Erlykin 2009a, Pierce 2009, Calogovic 2010, Snow-Kropla 2011, Erlykin 2011).

Basically, what’s actually been demonstrated by Kirkby, et al. isn’t at odds with the IPCC. What is at odds with the IPCC hasn’t been demonstrated by Kirkby, et al. And the claims by Svensmark, Shaviv, and other ‘GCRs drive climate’ proponents have been debunked at pretty much every step of the way. GCRs may have some influence on cloud behavior, but they’re not responsible for significant climatic changes now or in the geologic past.

To Be Continued?

The CLOUD project at CERN is essentially just getting started. Its preliminary findings will help aerosol modelers, and hopefully it will continue to provide useful results. After the initial furor of “skeptic” blog-spinning dies down, cosmic rays will probably find themselves falling out of favor once again. But there’s no such thing as too debunked when it comes to myths about climate change, and there’s little chance this will be the last time cosmic rays will be trotted out to claim that we don’t need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Way Things Break (h/t Skeptical Science)


  • Calogovic, J., et al. (2010): Sudden cosmic ray decreases: No change of global cloud cover. Geophysical Research Letters, 37, L03802, doi:10.1029/2009GL041327.
  • Erlykin, A.D., et al (2009): Solar activity and the mean global temperature. Environmental Research Letters, 4, 014006, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/4/1/014006.
  • Erlykin, A.D., et al (2009a): On the correlation between cosmic ray intensity and cloud cover. Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, 71, 17-18, 1794-1806, doi:10.1016/j.jastp.2009.06.012.
  • Erlykin, A.D., and A.W. Wolfendale (2011): Cosmic ray effects on cloud cover and their relevance to climate change. Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, 73, 13, 1681-1686, doi:10.1016/j.jastp.2011.03.001.
  • Kirkby, J., et al. (2011): Role of sulphuric acid, ammonia and galactic cosmic rays in atmospheric aerosol nucleation. Nature, 476, 429–433, doi:10.1038/nature10343.
  • Kulmala, M., et al. (2010): Atmospheric data over a solar cycle: no connection between galactic cosmic rays and new particle formation. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 10, 1885-1898, doi:10.5194/acp-10-1885-2010.
  • Lockwood, M., and C. Fröhlich (2007): Recent oppositely directed trends in solar climate forcings and the global mean surface air temperature. Proceedings of the Royal Society: A. 463, 2447- 2460, doi:10.1098/rspa.2007.1880.
  • Lockwood, M., and C. Fröhlich (2008): Recent oppositely directed trends in solar climate forcings and the global mean surface air temperature. II. Different reconstructions of the total solar irradiance variation and dependence on response time scale. Proceedings of the Royal Society: A, 464, 1367-1385, doi:10.1098/rspa.2007.0347.
  • Muscheler, R., et al. (2005): Geomagnetic field intensity during the last 60,000 years based on 10Be and 36Cl from the Summit ice cores and 14C. Quaternary Science Reviews, 24, 16-17, 1849-1860, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2005.01.012.
  • Overholt, A.C., et al. (2009): Testing the link between terrestrial climate change and galactic spiral arm transit. The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 705, 2, L101, doi:10.1088/0004-637X/705/2/L101.
  • Pierce, J.R., and P.J. Adams (2009): Can cosmic rays affect cloud condensation nuclei by altering new particle formation rates? Geophysical Research Letters, 36, L09820, doi:10.1029/2009GL037946.
  • Rahmstorf, S., et al. (2004): Cosmic Rays, Carbon Dioxide, and Climate. Eos Transactions AGU, 85(4), doi:10.1029/2004EO040002.
  • Sloan, T., and A.W. Wolfendale (2008): Testing the proposed causal link between cosmic rays and cloud cover. Environmental Research Letters, 3, 024001, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/3/2/024001.
  • Snow-Kropla, E.J., et al. (2011): Cosmic rays, aerosol formation and cloud-condensation nuclei: sensitivities to model uncertainties. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 11, 4001-4013, doi:10.5194/acp-11-4001-2011.

[Ed.’s Note: This post has been lightly edited since publication for grammar, style, and the addition of relevant references.]

The full text from the IPCC AR4 section on cosmic rays and climate:

When solar activity is high, the more complex magnetic configuration of the heliosphere reduces the flux of galactic cosmic rays in the Earth’s atmosphere. Various scenarios have been proposed whereby solar-induced galactic cosmic ray fluctuations might influence climate (as surveyed by Gray et al., 2005). Carslaw et al. (2002) suggested that since the plasma produced by cosmic ray ionization in the troposphere is part of an electric circuit that extends from the Earth’s surface to the ionosphere, cosmic rays may affect thunderstorm electrification. By altering the population of CCN and hence microphysical cloud properties (droplet number and concentration), cosmic rays may also induce processes analogous to the indirect effect of tropospheric aerosols. The presence of ions, such as produced by cosmic rays, is recognised as influencing several microphysical mechanisms (Harrison and Carslaw, 2003). Aerosols may nucleate preferentially on atmospheric cluster ions. In the case of low gas-phase sulphuric acid concentrations, ion-induced nucleation may dominate over binary sulphuric acid-water nucleation. In addition, increased ion nucleation and increased scavenging rates of aerosols in turbulent regions around clouds seem likely. Because of the difficulty in tracking the influence of one particular modification brought about by ions through the long chain of complex interacting processes, quantitative estimates of galactic cosmic-ray induced changes in aerosol and cloud formation have not been reached.

Many empirical associations have been reported between globally averaged low-level cloud cover and cosmic ray fluxes (e.g., Marsh and Svensmark, 2000a,b). Hypothesised to result from changing ionization of the atmosphere from solar-modulated cosmic ray fluxes, an empirical association of cloud cover variations during 1984 to 1990 and the solar cycle remains controversial because of uncertainties about the reality of the decadal signal itself, the phasing or anti-phasing with solar activity, and its separate dependence for low, middle and high clouds. In particular, the cosmic ray time series does not correspond to global total cloud cover after 1991 or to global low-level cloud cover after 1994 (Kristjánsson and Kristiansen, 2000; Sun and Bradley, 2002) without unproven de-trending (Usoskin et al., 2004). Furthermore, the correlation is significant with low-level cloud cover based only on infrared (not visible) detection. Nor do multi-decadal (1952 to 1997) time series of cloud cover from ship synoptic reports exhibit a relationship to cosmic ray flux. However, there appears to be a small but statistically significant positive correlation between cloud over the UK and galactic cosmic ray flux during 1951 to 2000 (Harrison and Stephenson, 2006). Contrarily, cloud cover anomalies from 1900 to 1987 over the USA do have a signal at 11 years that is anti-phased with the galactic cosmic ray flux (Udelhofen and Cess, 2001). Because the mechanisms are uncertain, the apparent relationship between solar variability and cloud cover has been interpreted to result not only from changing cosmic ray fluxes modulated by solar activity in the heliosphere (Usoskin et al., 2004) and solar-induced changes in ozone (Udelhofen and Cess, 2001), but also from sea surface temperatures altered directly by changing total solar irradiance (Kristjánsson et al., 2002) and by internal variability due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (Kernthaler et al., 1999). In reality, different direct and indirect physical processes (such as those described in Section 9.2) may operate simultaneously.

19 Responses to Nope, Cosmic Rays Still Not Driving Climate Change

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    The outright, over-the-top lying by deniers about this CERN paper has been particularly blatant.

  2. Nick P. says:

    Step 1: Public funds CLOUD research

    Step 2: Scientists produce results

    Step 3: Deniers embrace the publically-funded research, misinterpret results, shout from the rooftops, “The Warmist dam has broken!”

    Step 4: Scientists correct deniers’ misinterpretation

    Step 5: Deniers
    (a) Milk their misinterpretation for as long as proves useful
    (b) Shout from the rooftops, “The scientists manipulate data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects!”

    Aaaaaaand repeat.

  3. John Tucker says:

    Misrepresentation of that CERN study is making some serious rounds in the denial circuits. I got it thrown at me in this:

    Science now settled

    “The new findings point to cosmic rays and the sun – not human activities – as the controller of climate on Earth.” ( )

    I have no idea how they can even come to that conclusion from the study. It says nothing of the sort.

  4. Jeffrey Davis says:

    They’re really wonderful GCRs, too, since they control temps whether the GCRs increase or decrease or whether the temps go up or down. And, amazingly, GCRs also inhibit every other physical process from having their expected function.

    GCRs: You Can’t Leave Home without ‘Em.

  5. Nick P. says:

    Perhaps journals could all agree to a standardized header for all climate-relevant publications: “In no way whatsoever does this research undermine the state of the science on anthropogenic warming.”

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    This is absurd. Don’t they know that the real reason for climate change is that God is punishing us for gay marriage?

  7. Badgersouth says:

    Where’s Flash Gordon when we need him?

  8. Jim Groom says:

    Speaking of dishonest reporting has anyone read the James Dellingpole piece in the UK Telegraph? Disturbing to say the least, but even worse is reading the comments from the public. It appears that we are losing the PR war with the denier crowd. Lies and distortion are working on his readership.

  9. Lionel A says:

    That Delingpole piece is absurd and I note that he refers to Lawrence Solomon who’s article John Tucker linked to above at #3 so what else should we expect but more crack-pottery.

    As for lies and distortions working on his readership don’t worry too much because they are largely drawn from those who still think Britain rules the world.

    I had toyed with the idea of signing up to comment but that would only give Delingpole a false sense of his popularity. After Sir Paul Nurse the ‘interpreter of interpretations’ is increasingly firing blanks.

    I note Delingpole writes novels so maybe fiction is all he knows.

  10. Jay Alt says:

    Prof Richard Alley mentions another point in his recent movie. The earth’s magnetic field periodically reverses, the last time was 780K yrs ago. The field also experiences ‘excursions’ where it changes but does not reverse. The last such excursion was 40K years ago.

    And during that Lanschamp\ Blake excursion, for a period of ~2,000 years, Earth’s magnetic field dropped to only ~10% of today’s strength. This allowed many more cosmic rays to hit the atmosphere. Yet no discernible effect on climate is seen in ice or ocean sediment cores. Clouds may have changed somewhat, but the change in Climate was so small that scientists cannot detect it. Yet they are able to detect many other climate changes during that time frame.

    So the earth has already done a big experiment for us. And it tells us the effect of cosmic rays on climate is negligible.

    JGR – 2004 Lund & Scwartz

  11. Dominic Brown says:


    In the first paragraph, you mean ‘rein in’ not ‘reign in’. It’s the metaphoric opposite of giving someone ‘free rein’, often similarly mis-rendered ‘free reign’. I guess horses are alien enough to most people today that equestrian metaphors get garbled, but such errors in style reduce a writer’s credibily—and we need your writings to be seen as authoritative.

    Keep up the good work!

  12. muoncounter says:

    The worst offender has to be Nigel Calder’s dramatic retelling of one run of the CLOUD experiment. It reads like cheap detective fiction (and that would be bad enough), but it also reveals several critical scientific errors:

    1. Why were ‘molecular clusters’ appearing in the experiment chamber with the electric field shielding in place? That violates the conditions of control for the experiment.
    2. There is no way to immediately identify the cosmic rays that entered the chamber once the electric field was removed as galactic cosmic rays or ‘GCRs’.
    3. The pion beam used in the experiment doesn’t produce ‘stronger cosmic rays;’ pions decay to muons, the main component of solar cosmic rays. This experiment thus mimics solar cosmic rays more closely than it does GCRs.

    If there is no connection between the experiment and GCRs, then the conclusion must be that solar cosmic rays are also capable of producing clouds. If that is true, we should have nothing but clouds, clouds and more clouds, because the earth is continuously bathed in solar cosmic rays – they are quite harmlessly passing through all of us all the time. This begs the question (with apologies to Sondheim): Where are the clouds?

  13. HPE says:

    So according to AGW deniers, when solar activity increases, that activity is what is directly responsible for the earth warming, but when solar activity decreases, more cosmic rays are allowed through the sun’s magnetic field, and that is what is responsible for the earth warming?

    Well they’ve got their bases covered, I guess.

  14. Joe Romm says:


  15. Tom Gray says:

    Another excellent explanation of this stuff, from the Climate Denial Crock of the Week guy, Peter Sinclair:

  16. Regina says:

    Earth warming starts to increase at just about the time human industrial activity gets under way. Cosmic rays bombarded the earth for millennia previously. The only macroscopic conclusion we can draw is that there is a correlation between the thermal increase and the activity increase. The cosmic ray hypothesis is wishful thinking and political contrarianism.

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This latest denialist humbug is being pushed with even more deranged hysteria and hyperbole than usual. It must impress the Dunning-Kruger-Joyce sub-species, who are impressed by colour, movement and large explosions. For the synaptically congested complex arguments are anathema. Complexity is next to Communism. Give them that good old simple-minded simplicity for simpletons, every time. Attempts at cognition lead to headache and nose-bleeds. Why are we concerned? Because they are winning, of course, proving, yet again I’m afeared, that mass democracy where even the grandest dullard has an equal vote and the psychopathic rich millions of them in the form of dollar bills, is a recipe for disaster, which debacle we have the inestimable privilege of being living witnesses to.

  18. Buzz Belleville says:

    Again, I can only say thank you. Realclimate does an awesome job helping the scientifically-inclined understand what the CLOUD experiment does and doesn’t show. Climate Progress has succeeded in bringing it to the rest of us.

  19. The Bobs says:

    Have these guys never heard of the Maunder Minimum? There is pretty substantial evidence that low sunspot activity correlates with lower temperatures overall on the Earth.