Published: 09.07.09

“Global dimming and brightening” - The role of solar radiation in climate change

A special volume of the “Journal of Geophysical Research” reviews the growing research field of “global dimming” and “global brightening” in over 20 articles. These phenomena, supposedly human-induced, control solar radiation incident at the Earth’s surface and thus influence climate.

Simone Ulmer
Clouds and aerosols influence the solar radiation on the earth’s surface and therefore the climate. (Photo: flickr/Schrottie)
Clouds and aerosols influence the solar radiation on the earth’s surface and therefore the climate. (Photo: flickr/Schrottie) (large view)

Special instruments have been recording the solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface since 1923. However, it wasn’t until the International Geophysical Year in 1957/58 that a global measurement network began to take shape. The data thus obtained reveal that the energy provided by the sun at the Earth’s surface has undergone considerable variations over the past decades, with associated impacts on climate.

Research focus at ETH Zurich

Investigating which factors reduce or intensify solar radiation and thus cause “global dimming” or “global brightening” is still very much a nascent field of research in which especially scientists from ETH Zurich became renowned. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) has now published a special volume on the subject which presents the current state of knowledge in detail and makes a considerable contribution to climate science. “Only now, especially with the help of this volume, is research in this field really taking off”, stresses Martin Wild, senior scientist at the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science of ETH Zurich, who is a specialist on the subject.

Decrease in solar radiation discovered

The initial findings, which revealed that solar radiation at the Earth’s surface is not constant over time but rather varies considerably over decades, were published in the late 1980s and early 1990s for specific regions of the Earth. Atsumu Ohmura, emeritus professor at ETH Zurich, for example, discovered at the time that the amount of solar radiation over Europe decreased considerably between the 1950s and the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1998 that the first global study was conducted for larger areas, like the continents Africa, Asia, North America and Europe for instance. The results showed that on average the surface solar radiation decreased by two percent per decade between the 1950s and 1990.

In analyzing more recently compiled data, however, Wild and his team discovered that solar radiation has gradually been increasing again since 1985. In a paper published in “Science” in 2005, they coined the phrase “global brightening” to describe this new trend and to oppose to the term “global dimming” used since 2001 for the previously established decrease in solar radiation.

Only recently, an article in the journal “Nature”, which Wild was also involved in, brought additional attention to the topic of global dimming/brightening.

Air pollution favors photosynthesis

In this study, for the first time, the scientists examined the connection between global dimming/brightening and the carbon cycle. They demonstrated that more scattered light is present during periods of global dimming due to the increased aerosol- and cloud-amounts, enabling plants to absorb CO2 more efficiently than when the air is cleaner and thus clearer. According to the scientists, this is because scattered light penetrates deeper into the vegetation canopy than direct sunlight, which means the plants can use the light more effectively for photosynthesis. Consequently, there was around 10 percent more carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere between 1960 and 1999.

The special volume, which appears in the AGU’s renowned “Journal of Geophysical Research”, provides an overview of the current state of knowledge. Almost half of the publications in the volume were either completely or partially written by ETH Zurich scientists. Wild is the guest editor, and author or co-author of ten of these articles.

The articles provide the first indication of the magnitude of these effects, how they vary in terms of time and space and what the possible consequences might be for climate change. They also discuss in detail the underlying causes and mechanisms, which are still under debate.

Many questions left open

It is particularly unclear as to whether it is the clouds or the aerosols that trigger global dimming/brightening, or even interactions between clouds and aerosols, as aerosols can influence the “brightness” and lifetime of the clouds. The investigation of these relations is complicated by the fact that insufficient – if any – observational data are available on how clouds and aerosol loadings have been changing over the past decades. The recently launched satellite measurement programs should help to close this gap for the future from space, however.

“There is still an enormous amount of research to be done as many questions are still open”, explains Wild. This includes the magnitude of the dimming and brightening effects on a global level and how greatly the effects differ between urban and rural areas, where fewer aerosols are released into the atmosphere. Another unresolved question is what happens over the oceans, as barely any measurement data are available from these areas.

A further challenge for the researchers is to incorporate the effects of global dimming/brightening more effectively in climate models, to understand their impact on climate change better. After all, studies indicate that global dimming masked the actual temperature rise – and therefore climate change – until well into the 1980s. Moreover, the studies published also show that the models used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fourth Assessment Report do not reproduce global dimming/brightening adequately: neither the dimming nor the subsequent brightening is simulated realistically by the models. According to the scientists, this is probably due to the fact that the processes causing global dimming/brightening were not taken into account adequately and that the historical anthropogenic emissions used as model input are afflicted with considerable uncertainties.

“This is why at ETH Zurich we are working with a research version of a global climate model, which contains much more detailed aerosol and cloud microphysics and can reproduce global dimming/brightening more effectively”, says Wild. For him, the studies so far constitute “initial” estimates that need to be followed up with further research.