Freeze and evolve


Updating The Chilling Stars and Magic Universe

When cosmic rays freeze the world, you’d better evolve

2100 million year-old multicellular fossil found in Gabon. Image: Kaksonen CNRS

Transforming the story of life on the Earth is a report in Nature today about multicellular creatures more than 2 billion years old, at a time when single-celled bacteria supposedly reigned supreme. Fossils you can pick up with your fingers, found in Gabon, West Africa, are far, far older than the multicellular animals that become detectable about 600 million years ago (Ediacaran period) and conspicuous 542 million years in the “Cambrian explosion”. The age is fixed with remarkable precision at 2070 to 2130 million years.

Exterior and interior of a fossil imaged by micro-tomography. Image: El Albani & Mazurier, CNRS

A team of 21 experts from France, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Germany and Belgium make the report. The lead author is Abderrazak El Albani, at the University of Poitiers, France. He tells Agence France Press that “More than 250 specimens have been found so far. They have different body shapes, and vary in size from one to 12 centimetres.”

What excites me about the discovery is that here was a far-reaching evolutionary response to the rise of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere beginning more than 2000 million years ago. It occurred in the aftermath of a planet-wide freeze for which there is a cosmic explanation.

Chapter 6 in The Chilling Stars includes the story of “Snowball Earth” events. Here are some extracts.

In 1986, George Williams and Brian Embleton in Australia used the magnetism in grains of iron oxide dropped from ancient ice to show that they were released within a few degrees of the Equator. A few years later, Joseph Kirschvink of the California Institute of Technology confirmed this result in magnetism associated with other rock formations in Australia produced by ice action, and well dated as 700 million years old. He called it ‘bullet-proof evidence’.

It now seems clear that these extensive, sea-level deposits … were formed by widespread continental glaciers which were within a few degrees of the equator. The data are difficult to interpret in any fashion other than that of a widespread, equatorial glaciation.”

Kirschvink invented the name Snowball Earth for that dire climatic state. You have to visualise ice sheets, glaciers and frozen seas even at the Equator itself. The degree of ocean freezing is still debated. Some investigators imagine vistas of ice a kilometre thick or more, others prefer a ‘slushball’picture with drifting sea ice and icebergs. Either way the impact on life was severe.

Evidence from all the world’s continents unpacks into about three separate snowball episodes in the interval 750 to 580 million years ago. Worms that survived by scavenging the sea-bed detritus evolved the body-plans that made possible the explosion of animal life mentioned in the previous chapter, when the world became reliably warmer again in the Cambrian Period that started 542 million years ago.

Those cold Neo-Proterozoic times, as geologists call them, were not the only occasion of such radical events involving ice and evolution. By the end of the 20th century, geologists had amassed evidence from South Africa, Canada and Finland that confirmed two Snowball Earth episodes between 2,400 and 2,200 million years ago, in Palaeo-Proterozoic times. Our planet was then only half its present age.

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Sun still sulks


Pick of the pics and Climate Change: News and Comments

The Sun still sulks

Two magnetograms from the ESA-NASA SOHO spacecraft contrast the Sun’s liveliness of exactly 10 years ago (20 June 2000) on the left with its feeble performance today (20 June 2010) on the right. In these images made with Stanford’s Michelson Doppler Interferometer, north magnetic polarity is white, south magnetic polarity is black.

Solstice sunrise over Stonehenge 2005. Credit: User: Solipsist.

As many thousands flock to Stonehenge for tomorrow’s summer solstice, this is a moment to ask for the umpteenth time what the Sun is up to. The mean sunspot number in June 2000 was 119, today it is 28, with the spots clustered in the northern region showing most magnetic activity. Since 2004 there have been 803 days with no sunspots at all (35 in 2010, 260 in 2009). During a typical sunspot minimum there are fewer than 500 spotless days.

In the current issue of the Royal Astronomical Society’s magazine Astronomy and Geophysics, Nigel Weiss of Cambridge considers the long-term variability of the Sun and alternative theories about it, especially concerning “grand maxima” in activity like that in the 20th Century, and “grand minima” like the Maunder Minimum of 300 years ago associated with the Little Ice Age. Weiss’s conclusion is that there’s a 40 % chance the current grand maximum will be followed by a grand minimum.

As for the climatic implications, Weiss and I agreed to differ some years ago. Although we both say that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimates the influence of the Sun, Weiss thinks it can’t compete with man-made global warming. His article ends:

Even if the Sun does enter a new Maunder-like grand minimum, any cooling effect will be small compared with the warming produced by anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

Contrast that with Henrik Svensmark’s conclusion in an article for the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

That the Sun might now fall asleep in a deep minimum was suggested by solar scientists at a meeting in Kiruna in Sweden two years ago. So when Nigel Calder and I updated our book The Chilling Stars, we wrote a little provocatively that “we are advising our friends to enjoy global warming while it lasts.”

In fact global warming has stopped and a cooling is beginning. Mojib Latif from the University of Kiel argued at the recent UN World Climate Conference in Geneva that the cooling may continue through the next 10 to 20 years. His explanation was a natural change in the North Atlantic circulation, not in solar activity. But no matter how you interpret them, natural variations in climate are making a comeback.

The outcome may be that the Sun itself will demonstrate its importance for climate and so challenge the theories of global warming. No climate model has predicted a cooling of the Earth – quite the contrary. And this means that the projections of future climate are unreliable. A forecast saying it may be either warmer or colder for 50 years is not very useful, and science is not yet able to predict solar activity.

So in many ways we stand at a crossroads. The near future will be extremely interesting. I think it is important to accept that Nature pays no heed to what we humans think about it. Will the greenhouse theory survive a significant cooling of the Earth? Not in its current dominant form. Unfortunately, tomorrow’s climate challenges will be quite different from the greenhouse theory’s predictions. Perhaps it will become fashionable again to investigate the Sun’s impact on our climate.


N. Weiss, “Modulation of the Sunspot Cycle”, Astronomy and Geophysics, Vol. 51, pp. 3.9-3.15, 2010

H. Svensmark: “While the Sun sleeps” (in Danish), Jyllands-Posten, 9 September, 2009

For a related post on this blog see

Postscript on the Song of the Sun

I see that Sheffield solar physicists now generate music from observations of the magnetic coronal loops. Read about it (and hear it):

For an earlier Song of the Sun, using its internal vibrations seen by SOHO’s MDI, click on the second item here (but beware – it’s about 18 MB with visuals)

Wiki Witch of the West


Predictions Revisited and Climate Change: News and Comments

The Wiki Witch of the West

A pingback comes from Lamont County Environment, which I guess must be Lamont County, Alberta, Canada, where birds throng in summer on the nature reserve of Beaverhill Lake.

That item quotes my recent Tradecraft of Propaganda post and also the entry about me in Wikipedia. Added comments defend me from a perceived bias in Wikipedia. But that entry really isn’t too bad, compared with three years ago, when it first picked up on a climate prediction of mine made in 1980.

Here’s the story told in a plain-text email sent in April 2007 to CCNet (Cambridge Conference Network) run by Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores University, who’s now director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.


Dear Benny

It’s one thing to be held to account for daring predictions made nearly 30 years ago, another to have them perversely rated. Last year a blogger on the Vanity Fair website, Jim Windolf, reported that he had found in a junk shop “a worn-out copy of The Book of Predictions, a compendium of ‘4,000 exclusive predictions’ edited by the family team of David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace”. Among the gems from 1980 for his readers to chortle about, Windolf picked out the following:

British science journalist Nigel Calder wrote that, by 2000, ‘the much-advertised heating of the earth by the man-made carbon-dioxide ‘greenhouse’ fails to occur; instead, there is renewed concern about cooling and an impending ice age.”

A thought policeman who uses Wikipedia to promote the man-made global warming hypothesis has now added that quote to my biography, with the comment: “After his prediction was proven wrong, Calder participated in the polemic documentary film The Great Global Warming Swindle. He also co-authored The Chilling Stars.”

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Tradecraft of propaganda



Climate Change: News and Comments

The tradecraft of propaganda

Ritchie Calder. Photo: National Library of Scotland.

Hearing about a story concerning my father  in The Independent, London (2 June), I’ve now seen that the professor of journalism at the University of Kent, Tim Luckhurst, describes him as a “war hero”. That’s for Ritchie Calder’s candid newspaper reports of the chaotic responses to the bombing blitz on London, 1940-41. The article is here:

As Luckhurst says, he faced accusations of “giving comfort to the enemy”. Yes, as a child I heard him telling my mother at the door that he’d be “home by eight if I’m not in Brixton Prison”. But although Luckhurst mentions a later involvement in propaganda, he doesn’t explain that the government silenced Calder’s troublesome reportage of the air raids by shanghai-ing him into the top-secret Political Warfare Executive, formed in August 1941.


A pass giving Ritchie Calder access to the plans for the D-Day landings. (P.I.D., Political Intelligence Department, was a cover-name for the Political Warfare Executive.) National Library of Scotland.

My aim in this blog is to stick to science and shun the politics. My Dad was more politically minded and finished up as a Labour peer. But I share his readiness to defy officialdom and, when the facts serve, to cock a snook at bigwigs of any kind.

What Ritchie Calder told me about wartime propaganda against the Nazis has helped me to understand how a few scientists and politicians have persuaded governments and the docile media about a danger from man-made global warming that goes far beyond the real facts.

While not exactly scientific, the tradecraft of propaganda can be considered technical, so I’ve decided to post here the text of a talk I gave on the subject in London 18 months ago. It’s lightly edited to remove one comment about an individual and to correct one historical over-simplification, but I’ve not bothered to update remarks corresponding to the time of delivery of the talk. [On 8 June, I’ve added some pictures, which I didn’t use in the talk, to break up the long-winded text.]


Global warming is just propaganda

Talk by Nigel Calder, Savile Club, London, 9 Dec. 2008

© Nigel Calder 2008

Let me start by mentioning two members of your club, my brother Allan here tonight, and our late father, Ritchie Calder. When Allan was six weeks old a damaged German bomber was about to crash in Surrey. It jettisoned its bombs and one hit our family home. There was a kerfuffle in London when it turned out that the German pilot had in his pocket a British propaganda leaflet produced by our Dad. Had there been a breach of security? Had his house been targeted? No, of course not. It was just a grisly coincidence.

Ritchie Calder was an ace science reporter, whose scoops included the splitting of the atom and the structure of DNA. But during the Second World War he was director of plans and campaigns in the Political Warfare Executive of the Foreign Office. In plain words, he was making propaganda. He later told me quite a lot about the wartime tradecraft. And now it dismays me to see the very same techniques being used to propagate the myth that we are in the grip of relentless global warming driven by manmade emissions of carbon dioxide.

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Puzzling Sun


Climate Change – Updating The Chilling Stars

The deeply puzzling Sun

We can’t predict the climate on Earth until we understand these changes on the Sun.” So says Jeff Kuhn, who runs the Haleakala Observatories of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, and his sentiment will be shared by anyone who thinks that the Sun plays a major part in climate change.

Impression of the long-lived SOHO. ESA & NASA

He makes the comment in a press release (11 May 2010) about a remarkably small change in the Sun’s diameter in the course of the most recent sunspot cycle, Cycle 23. With colleagues from Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa (Brazil) and Stanford University, Kuhn reports in an International Astronomical Union paper:

“… the method and results of precise solar astrometry made with the Michelson Doppler Imager (MDI), on board the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), during one complete solar cycle. We measured an upper limit to the solar radius variation, the absolute solar radius value and the solar shape. Our results are 22 [milli-arcseconds] peak-to-peak upper limit for the solar radius variation over the solar cycle, the absolute radius was measured as 959.28 ± 0.15 [arcseconds] at 1 [astronomical unit], and the difference between polar and equatorial solar radii in 1997 was 5 km and about three times larger in 2001.”

In plain language, the visible Sun’s diameter changed by less than one millionth during 12 years of observation. That’s despite the daily frenzy of solar activity and the great contrasts in behaviour during the maxima and minima of the sunspot counts. Kuhn hopes for even more precise measurements with NASA’s newly launched Solar Dynamics Observatory, but to see long-term changes you must obviously watch for a long time. It’s the durability of the ESA/NASA SOHO spacecraft and its MDI instrument, since the launch in December 1995, that makes the present results possible.

MDI is widely known for its daily images showing us where the sunspots are. At the time of this posting on12 May the Sun’s face is spotless, and the extraordinary wait continues for our lazy star to get going in earnest with its new Cycle 24.

MDI also peers into the solar interior by “helioseismology” and can even detect the presence of sunspots on the Sun’s far side. What’s more, MDI measures the line-of-sight magnetic field at the visible surface, thanks to which David Hathaway of NASA Huntsville and Lisa Rightmire of the University of Memphis can describe another change during Cycle 23.

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global warming want to bet


Climate Change: News and Comments

Global warming – want to bet?

From the sweepstake's website

The smart money is on global warming,” declared a tipster in the journal Nature, back in 2001. John Whitfield was commenting on a short article in Science about an annual sweepstake on the date and time of springtime melting of river ice at Nenana in central Alaska. As Nature in London and Science in Washington have been the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of climatic alarmism, the prediction was consistent with editorial beliefs.

The tripod on 27 April 2010. From Ice Clasic Website.

Nenana is about 60 km south-west of Fairbanks, Alaska’s biggest inland city, and the townsfolk manage the sweepstake in support of local charities. They call it the Nenana Ice Classic, and this year’s betting closed on 5 April 2010. Every March, they embed a tripod in the ice covering the Tanana River. When the ice melts in late April or early May, the tripod moves, tripping a wire that stops a clock. Public concern about the size of the jackpot ($279,000 in 2010) ensures consistency and supervision worthy of the most meticulous scientific fieldwork.

Supposing you followed Nature’s advice in 2001, and bet on an ever-earlier melt date, would that have helped you to win the sweepstake?

If you knew that El Niño warmings and volcanic coolings influence the Alaskan river ice, you might have prudently started from the ten-year average from 1992 to 2001. Correcting for leap years, the average melting date was May 1. In the subsequent nine years, 2002-2010, the Nenana clock stopped as shown here, with leap years starred. Five times the melt was earlier than in 1992-2001, but three times it was later. The average melting date remained stubbornly at May 1. Nature proclaimed in 2001 that “an Alaskan sweepstake has become a record of global warming.” Now the Nenana ice joins the growing number of indications that global warming has at least paused, since the mid-1990s.

Engineers who were building a bridge over the river at Nenana started the sweepstake in 1917, and an unbroken sequence of records exists. Regarding the event as a proxy for springtime temperatures in central Alaska, I here plot the data with early melts high and late melts low.

The black line is a mathematical curve fitted to the data (5th order polynomial). It has no special statistical warranty but it gives a fair impression of ever-changing trends in the Alaskan climate. Only from 1975 to 1995 was a trend towards earlier ice melts fully consistent with the theory of man-made global warming. By contrast, most of the ups and downs match nicely with long-term decreases or increases in cosmic rays reaching the Earth, as the Sun’s magnetic activity varied. The dip since 2000 coincides with increasing cosmic radiation during a time of weakened solar activity.

Should you have therefore bet on the Nenana ice breakup being later in 2010? Not necessarily, because the smart money is on El Niño. The earliest melts in the Nenana record were on April 20 1940 (April 21 if not a leap year) and on April 20 1998. Both followed strong El Niño warmings in the eastern Pacific. So anyone aware of the major El Niño in progress in recent months might well have wagered on an April melt. In any case, you have to predict the time of day of the breakup – by hour and minutes – which leaves the most thoughtful analyst with little advantage over the general public in Alaska, who may just guess.

Simpler and surer bets about the climate take a long time. Ten years ago, mirth and outrage followed my suggestion on German television that global warming had stopped. That led to a written wager with the TV producer.

My expectation was a little premature and in 2006, because the satellite data did not go my way, I handed over the € 500. Much more important than that was my growing confidence that I had not misled the German TV viewers about global warming having stopped. Henrik Svensmark and Eigil Friis-Christensen in Copenhagen confirmed it in 2007, using tropospheric and oceanic temperature data. Others did so with officially publicized surface temperatures, so that by 2009 Kevin Trenberth, a prominent global warmer at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, was admitting in a leaked “Climategate” e-mail that “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”.

Do we see just a hesitation in global warming, or the start of a prolonged cooling? In the second edition of The Chilling Stars (2008), Svensmark and I said “enjoy the global warming while it lasts”, and Svensmark repeated the remark in a Danish newspaper in 2009. Words, you might say, come cheap, but two Russian physicists have serous money riding on an expected decline in temperatures.

Vladimir Bashkirtsev and Galina Mashnich at the Institute of Solar-Terrestrial Physics in Irkutsk published in 2003 a paper entitled “Will we face global warming in the nearest future?” They answered the question with a determined “No”. To account for what they called “the cooling that has already started” Bashkirtsev and Mashnich traced the clear link between sunspot counts and temperatures, in Irkutsk and globally, over the period 1882-2000, and they went on to endorse a prediction that sunspot cycles would weaken over the coming decades.

In 2005, the Russian pair agreed to a $10,000 bet about it with James Annan, a British pro-warming climate modeller working in Yokohama. As reported by Jim Giles in Nature, Mashnich and Bashkirtsev said that the average global surface temperature in 2012-17 would be lower than in 1998-2003, using data from the US National Climatic Data Center. Solar activity certainly seems to have declined in the Russians’ favour. But like the gamblers themselves, onlookers must now wait until 2018 to know the outcome. A merit of the Nenana Ice Classic is that it demands only a few weeks’ patience from the punters .


J. Whitfield, “Warm favourite”, Nature News, published online, 26 October 2001 doi:10.1038/news011101-2

R. Sagarin & F. Micheli, “Climate Change in Nontraditional Data Sets”, Science, Vol. 294, p. 811 2001

Nenana Ice Classic

Nenana melt records are available from the University of Colorado at

H. Svensmark and E. Friis-Christensen, ‘Reply to Lockwood and Fröhlich – The Persistent Role of the Sun in Climate Forcing’, Danish National Space Center Scientific Report, 3/2007

K. Trenberth, “Re: BBC U-turn on climate”, email to Michael Mann et al. 12 Oct 2009

J. Giles, “Climate sceptics place bets on world cooling down”, Nature, Vol. 436, p. 897, 2005

V.S. Bashkirtsev & G.P. Mashnich, G.P., “Will we face global warming in the nearest future?” Geomagnetism and Aeronomy, Vol. 43, pp. 124-127.2003.

Monsoons and the Sun


Climate Change: Updating The Chilling Stars

Monsoons and the Sun

Late rains saved most of the 2009 harvest of India, despite a shortfall of 21% in the summer’s rainfall that led to a ban on rice exports, after a 17% loss of production in West Bengal. But 2009 saw the worst deficit in India’s summer monsoon since 1972, while Burma (Myanmar) had its the shortest monsoon season since 1979.

It is chastening to recall that, in April 2009, Reuters reported the Indian Meteorological Department as saying, “IMD’s long range forecast for the 2009 south-west monsoon season (June to September) is that the rainfall for the country as a whole is likely to be near normal.” Even an updated forecast in June expected only a small rainfall deficit. Clearly, the unpredictable monsoons remain a problem for meteorology and climate physics.

Is there a link between reduced monsoon rains and the Sun’s recent sluggish behaviour, shown by the scarcity of sunspots? Probably. But to clarify the solar link well enough to make better regional forecasts, for even a few months ahead, remains an urgent task. Read the rest of this entry »