Can energy from the remnants of exploding stars out in the Galaxy really affect cloud formation in the Earth's atmosphere?
Since 1996, Danish researchers have been attempting to prove that cosmic rays from outer space could play a significant role in cloud formation.
Cosmic rays are energetically charged particles that hit the Earth's atmosphere from outer space. Studies conducted in Copenhagen and at CERN in Geneva suggest they may influence cloud cover either by directly affecting existing clouds, or through the formation of tiny particles, known as 'aerosols' or 'cloud condensation nuclei', which grow to form the basis of cloud droplets. Until recently, however, this theory had been criticised as tests appeared to suggest that the growth of aerosols would be capped by a shortage of condensable gases like sulphuric acid in the atmosphere.
One series of experiments appeared to confirm the critics' hypothesis, but recent research, conducted as part of a study at the Technical University of Denmark and known as SKY2, has now managed to demonstrate that under the right conditions clusters of molecules can indeed grow to levels which affect cloud formation. SKY2 was conducted using ionizing cosmic and gamma rays, which appear to perpetuate the chemical processes required to allow the droplet clusters to increase in size.
The evidence appears to validate years of research, and scientists are understandably enthusiastic about the findings. "The result boosts our theory that cosmic rays coming from the Galaxy are directly involved in the Earth's weather and climate...Now we want to close in on the details of the unexpected chemistry occurring in the air, at the end of the long journey that brought the cosmic rays here from exploded stars." commented Henrik Svensmark, lead author of the new report.
These findings could be of extreme significance, as clouds exert powerful effects on the Earth’s energy balance and changes of only a few per cent have an important effect on our climate. Further study of the fundamental microphysics involved appears to be necessary to truly understand how rays from outer space can directly affect cloud formation, and the implications of this. The sun is one source of cosmic rays, and certainly the Earth has been subjected to a recent battering from solar flares as the sun reaches its 11 year solar max.
More cosmic rays mean more cloud cover, and increased cloud cover results in global cooling, a phenomenon which has been noted recently by meteorologists: could it be that events in our distant Universe are affecting our weather even more than 'the greenhouse effect'?
Our deep connection to the universe in which we live must never be forgotten.
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