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Cosmic dust and Chinese whispers

  • 06 Apr 2012, 08:45
  • Verity Payne

Credit: NASA, ESA

We like exciting new climate science research, so our interest was piqued this week by a Mail Online article asking whether " Could space dust be at fault for climate change?" - adding that

"New research links particles in space to ever changing weather conditions."

Sounds intriguing ... The new research is attributed to Professor John Plane, an atmospheric chemist from the University of Leeds. But Plane told us that "the title of the Mail article is completely misleading."

So what's going on?

Written by the ubiquitous 'Daily Mail Reporter', the article seems to be based on a trail of chinese whispers which has threaded its way through the blogosphere - starting with an innocuous press release that was changed ever so slightly in re-posting, and culminating in the Mail Online article.

The story begins at the 2012 National Astronomy Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society, held at the University of Manchester at the end of March, where Plane presented a paper discussing Cosmic Dust in the Terrestrial Atmosphere (CODITA) - an ongoing research project into how much cosmic dust gets into the earth's atmosphere on a daily basis. The plan is for scientists to incorporate Plane and his team's results into climate models in order to better understand how cosmic dust is transported through the Earth's atmosphere.

The Royal Astronomical Society issued a press release entitled "CODITA: measuring the cosmic dust swept up by the Earth". The press release discusses the ways that cosmic dust particles can be "involved in a diverse range of phenomena linked to climate change", but this does not equate to suggesting that cosmic dust causes climate change, or that cosmic dust is relevant to the warming that has occurred over recent decades. Plane told us:

"There may be a link between cosmic dust and climate over much longer timescales, when the solar system contained a lot more dust. But we are talking around 1 billion years ago."

The press release was however re-posted by the Daily Galaxy blog, under the new and rather less accurate headline: EcoAlert: Does Cosmic Dust Play a Role in Climate Change?. The Daily Galaxy do not expound any further on the notion that cosmic dust might play a role in climate change. They have simply re-posted the press release, along with an additional paragraph from a NASA website.

'Daily Mail Reporter' then seems to base its article on the Daily Galaxy's headline - converted into the claim that

"Cosmic dust that fills space could be playing a part in climate change according to new scientific research."

We asked Plane whether 'Daily Mail Reporter' contacted him to check that this interpretation, based solely on a blog headline, was correct. Plane told us that he was not contacted by the Mail.

This isn't the first time that the Mail have been overzealous in their reported inferences about climate change. Remember their 'global warming will make us shrink' story? Nor, apparently, is it the first time that they have based their inferences on blog posts, rather than the original research papers.

The story is now being picked up by climate skeptic bloggers. So we suspect that this one might run for a while yet. 

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