The spiral structure of the Milky Way, cosmic rays, and ice age epochs on Earth

Nir J. Shaviv*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

152 Scopus citations


The short term variability of the galactic cosmic ray flux (CRF) reaching Earth has been previously associated with variations in the global low altitude cloud cover. This CRF variability arises from changes in the solar wind strength. However, cosmic ray variability also arises intrinsically from variable activity of and motion through the Milky Way. Thus, if indeed the CRF climate connection is real, the increased CRF witnessed while crossing the spiral arms could be responsible for a larger global cloud cover and a reduced temperature, thereby facilitating the occurrences of ice ages. This picture has been recently shown to be supported by various data [PhRvL 89 (2002) 051102]. In particular, the variable CRF recorded in Iron meteorites appears to vary synchronously with the appearance ice ages. Here, we expand upon the original treatment with a more thorough analysis and more supporting evidence. In particular, we discuss the cosmic ray diffusion model which considers the motion of the galactic spiral arms. We also elaborate on the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way's spiral arms. In particular, we bring forth new argumentation using HI observations which imply that the galactic spiral arm pattern speed appears to be that which fits the glaciation period and the cosmic-ray flux record extracted from Iron meteorites. In addition, we show that apparent peaks in the star formation rate history, as deduced by several authors, coincides with particularly icy epochs, while the long period of 1 to 2 Gyr before present, during which no glaciations are known to have occurred, coincides with a significant paucity in the past star formation rate.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)39-77
Number of pages39
JournalNew Astronomy
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2003


  • Cosmic rays
  • Earth
  • Galaxy: kinematics and dynamics
  • Galaxy: structure


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