Thursday, February 15, 2007

Cosmic Clouds

It is almost possible to predict one or two days in advance, within a rather broad range of probability, what the weather is going to be; it is even thought that it will not be impossible to publish daily forecasts, which would be very useful to society.~ Antoine Lavoisier, 1743-1794

The debate about global warming has pretty well shifted from whether it is occurring to what is causing it. In the main camp are those who wish to lay the bulk, if not all, of the blame on humanity. In the other camp are those who think that other factors are at work over which we have little or no control. It is trendy to be in the former group; it may be more sensible to be in the second.

I cover this territory back in November in some detail. The crux of that piece was that we really haven't a clue about what makes the Earth's weather machine work. The 2006 hurricane prognostications certainly proved that. We can look back after the fact and make some reasonable guesses as to why things happened, but we don't seem able to use that information very well to make future predictions.

The problem is that the weather machine is complex beyond comprehension. There is an old saw about a butterfly's sneeze in Beijing causing a tropical storm in the Atlantic. That may not be far from the truth. Weather prognosticators have been fighting, and losing, the battle of predicting what the elements would do since the first hominid decided it was a good day for a hunt – only to come back with chilblains or little lumps from being pelted by hail.

In the article linked above, I mentioned the cosmic ray effect on climate, expressing some doubt, since cosmic rays have become the cause du jour for almost everything lately. But, the cosmic ray people are getting serious.

If you've ever used a cloud chamber, the theory should seem obvious. A cloud chamber is a device used to view the tracks of particles given off by a radiation source, like radium. What happens is that the chamber induces an atmosphere which is supersaturated with water (i.e., the air has a relatively humidity in excess of 100%). This can be done by compressing the air or cooling it, but the effect is the same. The little radioactive particles, in this case usually beta particles, bang into the water molecules and make them visible, leaving little tracks that are visible to the naked eye.

Cosmic rays are thought to do something similar in the atmosphere around us, colliding with various particles in the air and causing cloud formation. If you have more clouds, the sun's light is reflected off the cloud tops, cooling the Earth. If cosmic ray activity is decreased, due to, say, an increase in magnetic activity in the sun, then the number of clouds decreases, and the Earth warms.

An increasing number of scientists, looking at historic climate changes and even at periods of extinction throughout the long history of the planet, are beginning to think that clouds drive climate rather than climate driving clouds. So, if you affect cloud formation, you affect the heating or cooling of the Earth. One such group of scientists is going to put their money with their collective mouths are by running experiments using a CERN particle accelerator.

Of course, the mankind-is-evil crowd doesn't like this theory at all, as they don't favor any large-scale factors that could be impacting the climate. The problem with the human-generated climate change view is that it is a short-term outlook. One supporter, quoted in the article above, said he had checked cloud vs. climate records for the last 50 years in the UK and found a “small relationship.” That he found any relationship at all should have been significant to him.

What is worse is that the human-caused climate change crowd is fostering the idea that all we have to do is reduce CO2 emissions, and all will be well. If, in fact, global warming is caused by factors beyond our control, then we need to be taking action to deal with the coming changes. Right now, that's not happening. Even if we are a major factor in the climatic change, it is unlikely that, even if all carbon dioxide emissions were stopped tomorrow, the climate would happily reverse itself. The stuff is in the air now; it isn't going to disappear immediately.

So the real task is to start taking ameliorative measures to protect coastal areas against the rising of the oceans and to start figuring out how we're going grow food as currently arable areas become deserts. Presumably, when sea water is rolling down Wall Street, the powers that be will suddenly decide that something needs to be done. Worse, the industrialization-generated-warming crowd is allowing the politicians to get awaywith ignoring dealing with the coming change because of the implication that some simple actions will somehow fix everything.

It's potentially a much bigger problem with very complex solutions. And time's awasting.

No comments: