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Pål Brekke: Internationally renowned climate sceptic and solar expert

Pål Brekke was second-in-command of the gigantic international solar research project SOHO. Now back in his home country of Norway, Dr Brekke is immersed in coordinating research and disseminating findings for the Norwegian Space Centre in Oslo. He is bringing knowledge from his field of speciality into the climate debate, which has branded him as a climate bully in certain circles.

Portrett av Pål Brekke Pål Brekke (Photo: Bård Gudim) The vast majority of researchers concur that anthropogenic activity has affected the earth's climate. Dr Brekke is no exception. But he breaks rank with most climate researchers when he expresses doubt as to the actual extent of the impact of human activity.

Controversial opinions
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) has determined that the earth's temperature has risen by about 0.7° C since 1901. According to Dr Brekke, this time period coincides not only with an increase in human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, but also with a higher level of solar activity, which makes it complicated to separate the effects of these two phenomena. For this standpoint, he has been accused of being in the pocket of the powerful Norwegian petroleum industry and of being the mouthpiece for the country's least environmentally focused political forces.

Some climate researchers have told Dr Brekke that he is unqualified to put forth his opinion since he is not a climate researcher. Dr Brekke asks, "Just what makes someone a climate researcher? Couldn't someone who studies solar radiation also be considered a climate researcher?" Dr Brekke has published more than 40 scientific articles on the sun and on the interaction between the sun and the earth.

"We could be in for a surprise," he cautions. "It's possible that the sun plays an even more central role in global warming than we have suspected. Anyone who claims that the debate is over and the conclusions are firm has a fundamentally unscientific approach to one of the most momentous issues of our time."

A bright spot in scientific history
Norwegian solar research is a success story. It began with Kristian Birkeland, a leading physicist of the early 1900s who struggled determinedly to prove his theory that the aurora borealis was created by particles from the sun . Modern solar research has confirmed Dr Birkeland's theory, demonstrating that violent eruptions on the sun hurl out charged particles, giving us the mystical beauty we know as the Northern Lights.

The sky was the limit for Norwegian solar research once Svein Rosseland founded the world's first institute for theoretical astrophysics in 1934 at the University of Oslo, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. Ever since, this institute's researchers have been at the top of their field, and thanks to them Norway has been invited to take part in many prestigious international projects.

One of these is SOHO (Solar and Heliospheric Observatory), a major collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and its US counterpart, NASA. SOHO is a complete observatory for studying every part of the sun, with overall project costs totalling NOK 7 billion. The Norwegian astrophysicists were assigned the important task of developing the systems for transmitting commands to and receiving data from one of the satellite's 12 instruments. Thanks to substantial investment by the Research Council, among others, Norwegian researchers were the first to analyse the images transmitted home by the satellite.

Exciting SOHO firsts
Sola med håndtak (Photo: SOHO/the EIT Consortium) "When SOHO was launched into orbit in 1995, the Norwegian instrumentation was the only instrumentation with completed software. We were ready to analyse images from day one, while the other instrumentation groups had to work quite some time to extract anything from the data sent back. We got a lot out of those first few years, and were one of the groups in the world that published the most articles from SOHO," explains Dr Brekke. He was a key developer of the advanced digital image processing program used. Later he was given the job of monitoring and controlling the observations at the SOHO command centre at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, USA. This is where the US partners administered the daily operations of the satellite built by their European partners in the project.

Later Dr Brekke was offered the prestigious position of deputy project scientist for the entire SOHO project. "Every single day it was exciting to come to work and find out what had happened during the night. The images gave us answers to so many questions. We were surprised to see how dynamic the sun is. Suddenly we were seeing with our own eyes how sunspots were created below the surface. We could study space weather, and for the first time we could issue warnings of sun storms, which among other things can disrupt or even damage technological equipment here on earth."

Sun storm warnings have become so important that we have become dependent on SOHO, which still orbits the sun in eternal sunshine. Planned to operate for six years, the satellite is now in its 12th. Soon it will be joined by a better-equipped rival - the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) - in which Norwegian researchers are also involved. This new satellite will assume a number of SOHO's functions, but not the veteran satellite's duties of sun storm warnings and protecting vulnerable electronics on our planet.

Back to his roots
After six years in the USA, Dr Brekke felt it was time to return home. "The kids were getting older. If we were going to do it, it had to be then," he says. "Now I have an extremely exciting job at the Norwegian Space Centre," he continues. "My job in the USA was largely to facilitate others' research. I enjoy that, and I get to continue doing that here. The Norwegian Space Centre is an administrative agency that helps Norwegian industry and Norwegian researchers to accomplish what is important for Norway as a space research nation. We also represent Norway and take decisions on its behalf in ESA."

The Norwegian Space Centre affords Dr Brekke the opportunity to do one of things he is most passionate about: popularising and disseminating information. "I'm very concerned with recruiting researchers, so I spend much of my time giving lectures and writing. At the moment I'm working on two book projects, one of them a children's book on astronomy." More than willing to share his own fascinations, the solar researcher finds that "space research is a terrific tool for kindling interest in other scientific subjects."

Much new under the sun
As much as SOHO has revolutionised our knowledge of the sun, a great deal about it remains unknown some 4.6 billion years after it first began to shine. Dr Brekke believes the future will bring surprising answers as to why solar activity varies and about the relationship between solar activity and the climate on earth.

This is a topic of interest to researchers in many countries. At CERN in Switzerland, 70 researchers are participating in a project to test a theory that cloud layer has a significant effect on the earth's temperature. The Danish researchers who developed the theory assert that greater solar activity allows less cosmic radiation to reach the earth's atmosphere, which in turn leads to the formation of fewer clouds. Subsequently, the earth is more exposed to solar radiation, leading to greater warming.

"There is much evidence that the sun's high-activity cycle is levelling off or abating. If it is true that the sun's activity is of great significance in determining the earth's climate, this reduced solar activity could work in the opposite direction to climate change caused by humans. In that case," contends Dr Brekke, "we could find the temperature levelling off or actually falling in the course of a 50-year period" - an assertion that provokes many climate researchers.

Written by:
Siw Ellen Jacobsen. Translation: Darren McKellep/Victoria Coleman
Published:
29.02.2008
Last updated:
03.03.2008