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20 February 2009

How are solar variations represented in the climate models?

How are solar variations represented in the models?
This varies a lot because of uncertainties in the past record and complexities in the responses. But given a particular estimate of solar activity there are a number of modelled responses. First, the total amount of solar radiation (TSI) can be varied - this changes the total amount of energy coming into the system and is very easy to implement. Second, the variation over the the solar cycle at different frequencies (from the UV to the near infra-red) don't all vary with the same amplitude - UV changes are about 10 times as large as those in the total irradiance. Since UV is mostly absorbed by ozone in the stratosphere, including these changes increases the magnitude of the solar cycle variability in the stratosphere. Furthermore, the change in UV has an impact on the production of ozone itself (even down into the troposphere). This can be calculated with chemistry-climate models, and is increasingly being used in climate model scenarios (see here for instance).

There are also other hypothesised impacts of solar activity on climate, most notably the impact of galactic cosmic rays (which are modulated by the solar magnetic activity on solar cycle timescales) on atmospheric ionisation, which in turn has been linked to aerosol formation, and in turn linked to cloud amounts. Most of these links are based on untested theories and somewhat dubious correlations, however, as was recognised many years ago (Dickinson, 1975), this is a plausible idea. Implementing it in climate models is however a challenge. It requires models to have a full model of aerosol creation, growth, accretion and cloud nucleation. There are many other processes that affect aerosols and GCR-related ionisation is only a small part of that. Additionally there is a huge amount of uncertainty in aerosol-cloud effects (the 'aerosol indirect effect'). Preliminary work seems to indicate that the GCR-aerosol-cloud link is very small (i.e. the other effects dominate), but this is still in the early stages of research. Should this prove to be significant, climate models will likely incorporate this directly (using embedded aerosol codes), or will parameterise the effects based on calculated cloud variations from more detailed models. What models can't do (except perhaps as a sensitivity study) is take purported global scale correlations and just 'stick them in' - cloud processes and effects are so tightly wound up in the model dynamics and radiation and have so much spatial and temporal structure that this couldn't be done in a way that made physical sense. For instance, part of the observed correlation could be due to the other solar effects, and so how could they be separated out? (and that's even assuming that the correlations actually hold up over time, which doesn't seem to be the case).

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