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Don't Blame Sun for Global Warming, Study Says

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 13, 2006
 
Sunspots alter the amount of energy Earth gets from the sun, but not enough to impact global climate change, a new study suggests.

The sun's role in global warming has long been a matter of debate and is likely to remain a contentious topic.

Solar astronomer Peter Foukal of Heliophysics, Inc., in Nahant, Massachusetts, points out that scientists have pondered the link between the sun and Earth's climate since the time of Galileo, the famous 17th-century astronomer.

"There has been an intuitive perception that the sun's variable degree of brightness—the coming and going of sunspots for instance—might have an impact on climate," Foukal said.

Foukal is lead author of a review paper on sunspot intensity appearing in tomorrow's issue of the journal Nature.

He says that most climate models—including ones used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—already incorporate the effects of the sun's waxing and waning power on Earth's weather (related images: our stormy star).

But, Foukal said, "this paper says that that particular mechanism [sunspots], which is most intuitive, is probably not having an impact."

Sunspot Impact Simply Too Small

Sunspots are magnetic disturbances that appear as cooler, dark patches on the sun's surface. The number of spots cycles over time, reaching a peak every 11 years.

The spots' impact on the sun's total energy output is easy to see.

"As it turns out, most of the sun's power output is in the visible range—what we see as brightness," said Henk Spruit, study co-author from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany.

"The sun's brightness varies only because of the blemishes that are also visible directly on pictures: the dark patches called sunspots and the minute bright points called faculae. In terms of brightness changes, in large part, what you see is what you get."

The sun's energy output varies slightly as sunspots wax and wane on the star's surface.

But sunspot-driven changes to the sun's power are simply too small to account for the climatic changes observed in historical data from the 17th century to the present, research suggests.

The difference in brightness between the high point of a sunspot cycle and its low point is less than 0.1 percent of the sun's total output.

"If you run that back in time to the 17th century using sunspot records, you'll find that this amplitude variance is negligible for climate," Foukal said.

The researchers obtained accurate daily sunspot measurements dating as far back as 1874 from institutions such as the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, California, and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England.

Older records exist all the way back to when the telescope was invented in the 17th century, though the data become increasingly patchy with age (see a related graphic of how the Hubble Space Telescope works).

The team also derived the sun's historic strength by looking at the presence or absence of isotopes, such as beryllium 10, in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctic that reflect the past contents of Earth's atmosphere.

(Related news: "Climate-Change Forecast? Ask the Antarctic Ice" [November 2004].)

Such isotopes are formed when cosmic radiation penetrates the atmosphere.

In periods of high activity, a brighter sun emits more magnetic and plasmatic particles that shield Earth from the galaxy's rays, resulting in fewer isotopes.

Measuring the historical record of such isotopes from ice yields useful, though debatable, estimates of the sun's past power on Earth.

"If you see that these isotopes were low for 50 or 100 years, it's a darn good bet that the sun was more active then," Foukal said.

Sun Not Off the Hook for Warming

The authors and other experts are quick to point out that more complicated solar mechanisms could possibly be driving climate change in ways we don't yet understand.

Climate change carries such high stakes that even more unlikely possibilities may capture scientific attention.

"There are numerous studies that find a correlation [between solar variation and Earth climate]," said Sami Solanki of the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Lindau, Germany.

"These authors have looked at the simplest mechanism, and they find that this mechanism does not produce the same level of change that has been observed," he continued.

"This could be suggesting that there are other mechanisms acting for the way that the sun influences climate."

Solar ultraviolet (UV) rays are one possibility, though that theory creates its own challenges.

"UV is only a small fraction of total solar output, so you'd need a strong amplification mechanism in the Earth's atmosphere," study co-author Spruit said.

Magnetized plasma flares known as solar wind could also impact Earth's climate. Solar wind influences galactic rays and may in turn affect atmospheric phenomena on Earth, such as cloud cover.

Such complex interactions are poorly understood but could be crucial to unlocking Earth's climatic puzzle.

"I think the main question," the Max Planck Institute's Solanki said, "is, How does the sun [in general] act on climate? What are the processes that are going on in the Earth's atmosphere?"

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