By Steve Goddard
ESA’s Venus Express mission has been studying the planet and a basic atmospheric model is emerging.
Venus has long been the CO2 bogeyman of climate science. In my last piece about Venus I laid out arguments against the claim that it is a runaway greenhouse which makes Venus hot. This generated a lot of discussion. I’m not going to review that discussion, but instead will pose a few ideas which should make the concepts clear to almost everybody.
If there were no Sun (or other external energy source) atmospheric temperature would approach absolute zero. As a result there would be almost no atmospheric pressure on any planet -> PV = nRT.
Because we have a sun providing energy to the periphery of the atmospheric system, the atmosphere circulates vertically and horizontally to maintain equilibrium. Falling air moves to regions of higher pressure, compresses and warms. The greater the pressure, the greater the warming. Rising air moves to regions of lower pressure, expands, and cools. The amount of warming (or cooling) per unit distance is described as the “lapse rate.” On Earth the dry lapse rate is 9.760 K/km. On Venus, the dry lapse rate is similar at 10.468 K/km. This means that with each km of elevation you gain on either Earth or Venus, the temperature drops by about 10C.
It is very important to note that despite radically different compositions, both atmospheres have approximately the same dry lapse rate. This tells us that the primary factor affecting the temperature is the thickness of the atmosphere, not the composition. Because Venus has a much thicker atmosphere than Earth, the temperature is much higher.
dT = -10 * dh where T is temperature and h is height.
With a constant lapse rate, an atmosphere twice as thick would be twice as warm. Three times as thick would be three times as warm. etc. Now let’s do some experiments using this information.
Experiment # 1 – Atmospheric pressure on Venus’ surface is 92 times larger than earth, because the atmosphere is much thicker and thus weighs more. Now suppose that we could instantly change the molecular composition of Venus atmosphere to match that of Earth. Because the lapse rate of Earth’s atmosphere is very similar to that of Venus, we would see little change in Venus temperature.
Experiment #2 – Now, lets keep the atmospheric composition of Venus constant, but instead remove almost 91/92 of it – to make the mass and thickness of Venus atmosphere similar to earth. Because lapse rates are similar between the two planets, temperatures would become similar to those on earth.
Experiment #3 – Let’s take Earth’s atmosphere and replace the composition with that of Venus. Because the lapse rates are similar, the temperature on Earth would not change very much.
Experiment #4 – Let’s keep the composition of Earth’s atmosphere fixed, but increase the amount of gas in the atmosphere by 92X. Because the lapse rates are similar, the temperature on Earth would become very hot, like Venus.
Now let’s look at measured data :
Note that at one Earth atmospheric pressure on Venus (altitude 50km) temperatures are only about 50 degrees warmer than earth temperatures. This is another indication that atmospheric composition is less important than thickness.
Conclusions : It isn’t the large amount of CO2 which makes Venus hot, rather it is the thick atmosphere being continuously heated by external sources. It isn’t the lack of CO2 on Earth which keeps Earth relatively cool, rather it is the thin atmosphere. Mars is even colder than earth despite having a 95% CO2 atmosphere, because it’s atmosphere is very thin. If greenhouse gases were responsible for the high temperatures on Venus (rather than atmospheric thickness) we would mathematically have to see a much higher lapse rate than on Earth – but we don’t.
WUWT commentor Julian Braggins provided a very useful link which adds a lot of important information.
“The much ballyhooed greenhouse effect of Venus’s carbon dioxide atmosphere can account for only part of the heating and evidence for other heating mechanisms is now in a turmoil,” confirmed Richard Kerr in Science magazine in 1980.
The greenhouse theory does not explain the even surface temperatures from the equator to the poles: “atmospheric temperature and pressure in most of the atmosphere (99 percent of it) are almost identical everywhere on Venus – at the equator, at high latitudes, and in both the planet’s day and night hemispheres. This, in turn, means the Venus weather machine is very efficient in distributing heat evenly,” suggested NASA News in April 1979. Firsoff pointed out the fallacy of the last statement: “To say that the vigorous circulation (of the atmosphere) smooths out the temperature differences will not do, for, firstly, if these differences were smoothed out the flow would stop and, secondly, an effect cannot be its own cause. We are thus left with an unresolved contradiction.”
An update for those interested in what Venus looks like at the surface.
On March 1, 1982, the Soviet Venera 13 lander survived for 127 minutes (the planned design life was 32 minutes) in an environment with a temperature of 457 °C (855 °F) and a pressure of 89 Earth atmospheres (9.0 MPa). The photo composite above shows the soil and rocks near the lander.
Here’s another Venera image that shows a hint of yellow atmosphere. – Anthony