Variations in solar activity, at least as observed in numbers of sunspots, have been apparent since ancient times but to what extent solar variability may affect global climate has been far more controversial. The subject had been in and out of fashion for at least two centuries but the current need to distinguish between natural and anthropogenic causes of climate change has brought it again to the forefront of meteorological research. The absolute radiometers carried by satellites since the late 1970s have produced indisputable evidence that total solar irradiance varies systematically over the 11-year sunspot cycle, relegating to history the term “solar constant”, but it is difficult to explain how the apparent response to the Sun, seen in many climate records, can be brought about by these rather small changes in radiation. This article reviews some of the evidence for a solar influence on the lower atmosphere and discusses some of the mechanisms whereby the Sun may produce more significant impacts than might be surmised from a consideration only of variations in total solar irradiance.
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