Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Dr. Judith Curry notes in a posting at her excellent blog Climate Etc. that there are folks out there that claim the poorly named planetary “greenhouse effect” doesn’t exist. And she is right, some folks do think that. I took a shot at explaining that the “greenhouse effect” is a real phenomenon, with my “Steel Greenhouse” post. I’d like to take another shot at clarifying how a planetary “greenhouse effect” works. This is another thought experiment.
Imagine a planet in space with no atmosphere. Surround it with a transparent shell a few kilometres above the surface, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. An imaginary planet surrounded by a thin transparent shell a few kilometres above the surface (vertical scale exaggerated). The top of the transparent shell has been temporarily removed to clarify the physical layout. For our thought experiment, the transparent shell completely encloses the planet, with no holes. There is a vacuum both inside and outside the transparent shell.
To further the thought experiment, imagine that near the planet there is a sun, as bright and as distant from that planet as the Sun is from the Earth.
Next, we have a couple of simplifying assumptions. The first is that the surface areas of the planet and the shell (either the outside surface or the inside surface) are about equal. If the planet is the size of the earth and the transparent shell is say 1 kilometre above the surface, the difference in area is about a tenth of a percent. So the simplification is warranted.
The second simplifying assumption is that the planet is a blackbody for longwave (infra-red or “greenhouse”) radiation. In fact the longwave emissivity/absorptivity of the Earth’s surface is generally over 0.9, so the assumption is fine for a first-order understanding. You can include the two factors yourselves if you wish, it makes little difference.
Let’s look at several possibilities using different kinds of shells. First, Fig. 2 shows a section through the planet with a perfectly transparent shell. This shell passes both long and shortwave radiation straight through without absorbing anything:
Figure 2. Section of a planet with a shell which is perfectly transparent to shortwave (solar) and longwave (“greenhouse”) radiation.
With the transparent shell, the planet is at -18°C. Since the shell is transparent and absorbs no energy at all, it is at the temperature of outer space (actually slightly above 0K, usually taken as 0K for ease of calculation). The planet absorbs 240 W/m2 and emits 240 W/m2. The shell emits and absorbs zero W/m2. Thus both the shell and the planet are in equilibrium, with the energy absorbed equal to the energy radiated.
Next, Figure 3 shows what happens when the shell is perfectly opaque to both short and longwave radiation. In this case all radiation is absorbed by the shell.
Figure 3. Planet with a shell which is perfectly opaque to shortwave (solar) and longwave (“greenhouse”) radiation.
The planet stays at the same temperature in Figs. 2 and 3. In Fig. 3, this is because the planet is heated by the radiation from the shell. With the opaque shell in Fig. 3, the shell takes up the same temperature as the planet. Again, energy balance is maintained, with both shell and planet showing 240 W/m2 in and out. The important thing to note here is that the shell radiates both outward and inward.
Finally, Fig. 4 shows the energy balance when the shell is transparent to shortwave (solar) and is opaque to longwave (“greenhouse”) radiation. This, of course, is what the Earth’s atmosphere does.
Here we see a curious thing. At equilibrium, the planetary temperature is much higher than before:
In the situation shown in Fig. 4, the sun directly warms the planet. In addition, the planet is warmed (just as in Fig. 3) by the radiation from the inner surface of the shell. As a result, the planetary surface ends up absorbing (and radiating) 480 W/m2. As a result the temperature of the surface of the planet is much higher than in the previous Figures.
Note that all parts of the system are still in equilibrium. The surface both receives and emits 480 W/m2. The shell receives and emits 240 W/m2. The entire planetary system also emits the amount that it receives. So the system is in balance.
And that’s it. That’s how the “greenhouse effect” works. It doesn’t require CO2. It doesn’t need an atmosphere. It works because a shell has two sides, and it radiates energy from both the inside and the outside.
The “greenhouse effect” does not violate any known laws of physics. Energy is neither created nor destroyed. All that happens is that a bit of extra energy is temporarily trapped at the surface of the planet. This warms the surface.
So yes, dear friends, the “greenhouse effect” is real, whether it is created by a transparent shell or an atmosphere.
And now, for those that have followed the story this far, a bonus question:
Why is the above diagram of a single-shell planetary “greenhouse” inadequate for explaining the climate system of the earth?