4.2 Variations in total solar irradiance

Direct measurements of TSI made outside the Earth’s atmosphere began with the launch of satellite instruments in 1978. Previous surface-based measurements did not provide sufficient accuracy, as they were subject to uncertainties and fluctuations in atmospheric absorption that may have swamped the small solar variability signal.

Figure 21View Imagea presents all existing satellite measurements of TSI and it is clear that significant uncertainties remain related to the calibration of the instruments and their degradation over time. For example, data from the newest instrument, the Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM) on the SORCE satellite, is giving values approximately 5 Wm–2 lower than other contemporaneous instruments which disagree among themselves by a few Wm–2. This uncertainty is a serious problem underlying current solar-climate research. The variation in TSI over the past two 11-year cycles is known to greater accuracy showing approximately 0.08% (∼ 1.1 Wm–2) peak-to-peak over the solar cycle.

There is a related uncertainty, however, in the existence of any underlying trend in TSI over the past 2 cycles. Figure 21View Imageb presents one attempt to composite the measurements into a best estimate. It shows essentially no difference in TSI values between the cycle minima occurring in 1986 and 1996. The results of Willson and Mordinov (2003), however, show an increase in irradiance of 0.045% between these dates. The discrepancy hinges on assumptions made concerning the degradations of the Nimbus7/ERB and ERBS/ERBE instruments, data from which fills the interval, from July 1989 to October 1991, between observations made by the ACRIM I and II instruments. If such a trend were maintained, it would imply an increase in radiative forcing of about 0.1 Wm–2 per decade. Compared in terms of climate forcing, this is appreciable, being about one-third that due to the increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases averaged over the past 50 years. These discrepancies are important because all the available TSI reconstructions discussed below either use directly, or are scaled to fit, the recent satellite measurements, using one or other of the TSI composites.

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Figure 21: (a) Daily-averaged total solar irradiance: all measurements made from satellites (b) Composite of measurements to produce best estimate of TSI. Figure courtesy of Claus Fröhlich (External Linkhttp://www.pmodwrc.ch/).

The time interval of satellite observations contains information only on the short term components of solar variability but, in order to assess the potential influence of the Sun on centennial-scale climate change, it is necessary to know TSI further back into the past. In reconstructing past changes in TSI, proxy indicators of solar variability, for which longer periods of observation are available, are used to produce an estimate of its temporal variation over the past centuries. There are several different approaches taken to “reconstructing” the TSI, all employing a substantial degree of empiricism, and some examples are given in Figure 22View Image.

It is clear that the estimates diverge as they go back in time so that the value of solar radiative forcing over this period is highly uncertain. Furthermore, this plot does not include some estimates which suggest a much larger difference between the present level and that prevailing during the Maunder Minimum in sunspots which occurred during the latter part of the 17th century (e.g. Hoyt and Schatten, 1998Jump To The Next Citation Point).

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Figure 22: Reconstructions by various authors of total solar irradiance over the past 400 years. From Judith Lean, based on data from Wang et al. (2005); Lean (2000Jump To The Next Citation Point); Foster (2004).

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