7.3 Atmospheric ionisation and cloud

It has been proposed, originally by Dickinson (1975Jump To The Next Citation Point) who acknowledged that his idea was entirely speculative at the time, that variations in cosmic rays could provide a mechanism whereby solar activity would produce a direct impact on cloud cover by modulating atmospheric ionization, resulting in the electrification of aerosol and increasing its effectiveness to act as condensation nuclei. The processes involved are complex but if they do take place then there is scope for considerable amendment to the value for solar radiative forcing of climate based on incident irradiance alone. Other processes, whereby changes in the Earth’s electric field might modify cloud cover have also been proposed (see e.g. Tinsley, 2000) but these are not discussed here.

Ionisation of molecules in the lower atmosphere is brought about by cosmic rays and by naturally-occurring radioactivity. The latter consists of airborne alpha-particle emitters (such as radon gas) and direct gamma radiation from the soil. Cosmic radiation consists of extremely high energy (> GeV) particles, mostly protons and helium nuclei. Both sources cause an electron to separate from a molecule of nitrogen or oxygen; the electron then being captured by a neutral molecule on a very short timescale. Thus equal numbers of positive and negative ions are produced. Other processes can introduce a net charge into the atmosphere; these include combustion, rainfall and breaking ocean waves.

Cosmic rays are responsible for approximately 20% of the ionisation over land surfaces and provide the principle source of ionisation over the oceans. The ionisation rate increases with altitude reaching a peak near 15 km (see Figure 46View Imagea). The geographical distribution of cosmic ray ionisation is strongly modulated by geomagnetism with the rays tending to follow the magnetic field lines down to the magnetic poles. Thus only very high energy cosmic radiation reaches the Earth’s surface in low latitudes while much lower energy rays penetrate at high latitudes.

Solar activity modulates the heliospheric magnetic field which acts as a shield to cosmic rays. Thus, during periods of higher solar activity fewer cosmic rays reach the Earth, although the modulation primarily affects lower energy cosmic radiation. At the Earth’s surface cosmic rays are monitored by neutron monitors which detect the disintegrated particles (e.g. pions, muons) produced when cosmic radiation impacts atmospheric particles. Figure 46View Imageb presents a time series of the neutron count rate at two surface stations. The lower latitude station clearly shows lower counts and a weaker solar cycle modulation.

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Figure 46: (a) Variation of ionisation rate, and typical ion concentration, with height. (b) Variation with time of the neutron count rate at two surface stations: Climax, latitude 39.4° N and Huancayo, latitude 12.0° S. (Harrison and Carslaw, 2003Jump To The Next Citation Point)

The mechanism proposed by Dickinson (1975), and adopted by Marsh and Svensmark (2000) to account for the correlation of tropical marine low cloud cover and cosmic radiation in Figure 10View Image, requires that modulation by solar variability of cosmic rays causes a response in the concentration of cloud condensation nuclei. Several consecutive processes (summarised in Figure 47View Image) need to take place in order for this to come about. Firstly air ions are produced by the action of cosmic rays; this is not controversial, as discussed above, but it should be noted that these ions cannot act directly as cloud condensation nuclei as their small size would require the surrounding air to have a very high level of supersaturation which does not occur in the atmosphere.

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Figure 47: Stages in process whereby atmospheric ionisation results in the formation of cloud droplets/crystals. Harrison and Carslaw (2003)

The air ions produced by the cosmic rays may act as sites for the nucleation of new ultrafine aerosol (or condensation nuclei, CN). The mechanism then hinges on the extent to which these CN may grow into particles large enough (> 80 nm) to become cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) and whether this process is enhanced by the particles being charged. Growth may occur through condensation of water vapour or other soluble gases or through coagulation among neutral and charged particles. Some observational evidence (Yu and Turco, 2000) suggests that charged molecular clusters grow faster than neutral clusters and chemical box models (Yu and Turco, 2001) have been able to simulate this effect. However, to reach CCN size would take several days and whether the growth can be maintained depends on the supply of vapour and competitive sources of new aerosol and CCN all of which vary with location, altitude and time of year. Yu (2002) suggests that conditions in the lower troposphere may be more favourable than at higher altitudes but Arnold (2006) concludes that such processes are most likely to occur in the upper troposphere, providing there is a sufficient supply of SO2.

Even if by such a mechanism it proves feasible to produce a measurable effect on cloud cover or properties, the magnitude, and even the sign, of the impact on radiative forcing remains uncertain as it will depend on the cloud location, altitude and physical properties.

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