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Catastrophic predictions fade with the light of day

Close correlation between solar activity and Earth's temperature 

Dr. Ian Clark

Financial Post

Thursday, November 25, 2004

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment has sounded the alarm that carbon dioxide (CO2) from our burning of fossil fuels has precipitated an Arctic meltdown. What a dilemma this poses for struggling northern communities. Must they forsake much needed economic development and employment from the exploitation of northern gas reserves or should they shake hands with the devil and stake their future on the very resource that is allegedly melting the permafrost beneath their feet?

At first glance the verdict is in and we stand guilty as charged. On closer inspection, however, the science presented by the ACIA report is misleading. Let's look at the facts.

Is climate warming in the Arctic unusual? No. Earth scientists are familiar with dramatic climate changes over thousands of years in the Arctic. Notable is the well documented warm period experienced there some 8,000 years ago. Recent research shows that temperatures were 6 to 8 degrees C higher than today, with extensive loss of permafrost and changes to the ecology in the north. Data from glacier ice cores show that some of these changes occurred on the scale of decades. Despite such dramatic climate shifts, Arctic fauna have shown a remarkable ability to adapt and survive. Indeed the only significant animal extinctions in the North coincided with the arrival of man, brandishing a newly developed weapon of mass destruction -- the shaft mounted Clovis point that provided for 'reloadable spears" used by Paleo-Indian hunters more than 11,000 years ago.

Was CO2 ever responsible for past climate warming? No. The ACIA report states that past temperature increases were "associated with" atmospheric CO2 levels, which act as a climate driver. However, careful analysis of ancient atmospheres locked in the glacier ice cores shows that the dramatic shifts from cold to warm climates in the past were followed by major increases in CO2. The build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere consistently lagged temperature increases by about 800 years. CO2 has never before shown evidence that it can behave as a significant climate driver, despite large variations in its concentration. The tremendous fluctuations in global temperature over the millennia are intimately linked to changes in the solar energy the Earth receives. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have changed in response to temperature changes through changes in the amount of terrestrial vegetation and the uptake of CO2 by our vast oceans.

But surely the unprecedented increase in CO2 over the past century is responsible for the Arctic warming today. Again, no. Research over the past decade has demonstrated a very close correlation between solar activity and Earth's temperature. A variety of real data sources from sunspot cycles and measurements of cloudiness to tree rings and ice cores show that the rise in temperature over the past 100 years, and in particular over the past three decades, occurs at a time of greatly increased solar activity. So it seems that global temperature has risen due to increased output of energy from the sun, not only as visible light that we see, but also in the solar wind and the solar magnetosphere which affect our climate. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that CO2 is incapable of generating the warming that has been observed.

So what about the predictions of catastrophic warming over the next century? The forecasts of a 1.5 to 4.5 degrees C increase in global temperature are made by computer models that are incapable of accurately modelling changes in the most important greenhouse gas -- water vapour. Further, the warming that the models generate with increased CO2 is minimal, and does not account for present or future warming. The predictions of a warmer future are based on the untested hypothesis that a little warming by CO2 generates much greater warming by water vapour. Given that CO2 has never behaved in this way in the past, and that these models cannot accurately model the complications of clouds and aerosols (which reflect light energy back into space), the computer simulations of future climates have very large uncertainties. Despite the progress that has been made by the intrepid community of climate modellers, their predictions remain highly speculative.

So what is in store for Arctic climate? Thousands of years of climate records illustrate that the sun experiences a variety of cycles with different durations. In all cases, the sun settles down and cooler conditions return. There is no reason to believe that this will not again be the case, although forecasting space weather is as unreliable as predicting Earth weather.

Opposition to natural gas development in the north should be reassessed on the basis of this new evidence. The accumulating data that indicate a solar-driven climate makes it imperative that we take another look at the scientific basis of the Kyoto Protocol as well.

Instead of vainly trying to "stop climate change," let's spend our tax money on issues that are ostensibly resolvable -- groundwater contamination (ironically to be exacerbated by the production of ethanol from corn and grain), the dramatic restructuring of marine food chains by over-fishing, our disposable society's contributions to landfills as well as real air pollution from fossil fuel emissions.


Dr. Ian Clark, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Ottawa, is an Arctic specialist who focuses on the study of Paleoclimatology and Isotope Hydrogeology.  He may be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .