Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I’ve been considering the effect that temperature swings have on the average temperature of a planet. It comes up regarding the question of why the moon is so much colder than you’d expect. The albedo (reflectivity) of the moon is less than that of the Earth. You can see the difference in albedo in Figure 1. There are lots of parts of the Earth that are white from clouds, snow, and ice. But the moon is mostly gray. As a result, the Earth’s albedo is about 0.30, while the Moon’s albedo is only about 0.11. So the moon should be absorbing more energy than the Earth. And as a result, the surface of the moon should be just below the freezing temperature of water. But it’s not, it’s much colder.
Figure 1. Lunar surface temperature observations from the Apollo 15 mission. Red and yellow-green short horizontal bars on the left show the theoretical (red) and actual (yellow-green) lunar average temperatures. The violet and blue horizontal bars on the right show the theoretical Stefan-Boltzmann temperature of the Earth with no atmosphere (violet), and an approximation of how much such an Earth’s temperature would be lowered by a ± 50°C swing caused by the rotation of the Earth (light blue). Sunset temperature fluctuations omitted for clarity. DATA SOURCE
Like the Earth, averaged over its whole surface the moon receives about 342 watts per square metre (W/m2) of solar energy. We’re the same average distance from the sun, after all. The Earth reflects 30% of that back into space (albedo of 0.30), leaving about 240 W/m2. The moon, with a lower albedo, reflects less and absorbs more energy, about 304 W/m2.
And since the moon is in thermal equilibrium, it must radiate the same amount it receives from the sun, ~ 304 W/m2.
There is something called the “Stefan Boltzmann equation” (which I’ll call the “S-B equation” or simply “S-B”) that relates temperature (in kelvins) to thermal radiation (in watts per square metre). It says that radiation is proportional to the fourth power of the temperature.
Given that the moon must be radiating about 304 W/m2 of energy to space to balance the incoming energy, the corresponding blackbody lunar temperature given by the S-B equation is about half a degree Celsius. It is shown in Figure 1 by the short horizontal red line. This shows that theoretically the moon should be just below freezing.
But the measured actual average temperature of the lunar surface shown in Figure 1 is minus 77°C, way below freezing, as shown by the short horizontal yellow-green line …
So what’s going on? Does this mean that the S-B equation is incorrect, or that it doesn’t apply to the moon?
The key to the puzzle is that the average temperature doesn’t matter. It only matters that the average radiation is 304 W/m2. That is the absolute requirement set by thermodynamics—the average radiation emitted by the moon must equal the radiation the moon receives from the sun, 304 W/m2.
But the radiation is proportional to the fourth power of temperature. This means when the temperature is high, there is a whole lot more radiation, but when it is low, the reduction in radiation is not as great. As a result, if there are temperature swings, they always make the surface radiate more energy. As a result of radiating more energy, the surface temperature cools. So in an equilibrium situation like the moon, where the amount of emitted radiation is fixed, temperature swings always lower the average surface temperature.
For confirmation, in Figure 1 above, if we first convert the moment-by-moment lunar surface temperatures to the corresponding amounts of radiation and then average them, the average is 313 W/m2. This is only trivially different from the 304 W/m2 we got from the first-principles calculation involving the incoming sunlight and the lunar albedo. And while this precise an agreement is somewhat coincidental (given that our data is from one single lunar location), it certainly explains the large difference between simplistic theory and actual observations.
So there is no contradiction at all between the lunar temperature and the S-B calculation. The average temperature is lowered by the swings, while the average radiation stays the same. The actual lunar temperature pattern is one of the many possible temperature variations that could give the same average radiation, 304 W/m2.
Now, here’s an oddity. The low average lunar temperature is a consequence of the size of the temperature swings. The bigger the temperature swings, the lower the average temperature. If the moon rotated faster, the swings would be smaller, and the average temperature would be warmer. If there were no swings in temperature at all and the lunar surface were somehow evenly warmed all over, the moon would be just barely below freezing. In fact, anything that reduces the variations in temperature would raise the average temperature of the moon.
One thing that could reduce the swings would be if the moon had an atmosphere, even if that atmosphere had no greenhouse gases (“GHGs”) and was perfectly transparent to infrared. In general, one effect of even a perfectly transparent atmosphere is that it transports energy from where it is warm to where it is cold. Of course, this reduces the temperature swings and differences. And that in turn would slightly warm the moon.
A second way that even a perfectly transparent GHG-free atmosphere would warm the moon is that the atmosphere adds thermal mass to the system. Because the atmosphere needs to be heated and cooled as well as the surface, this will also reduce the temperature swings, and again will slightly warm the surface in consequence. It’s not a lot of thermal mass, however, and only the lowest part has a significant diurnal temperature fluctuation. Finally, the specific heat of the atmosphere is only about a quarter that of the water. As a result of this combination of factors, this is a fairly minor effect.
Now, I want to stop here and make a very important point. These last two phenomena mean that the moon with a perfectly transparent GHG-free atmosphere would be warmer than the moon without such an atmosphere. But a transparent atmosphere could never raise the moon’s temperature above the S-B blackbody temperature of half a degree Celsius.
The proof of this is trivially simple, and is done by contradiction. Suppose a perfectly transparent atmosphere could raise the average temperature of the moon above the blackbody temperature, which is the temperature at which it emits 304 W/m2.
But the lunar surface is the only thing that can emit energy in the system, because the atmosphere is transparent and has no GHGs. So if the surface were warmer than the S-B theoretical temperature, the surface would be emitting more than 304 W/m2 to space, while only absorbing 304 W/m2, and that would make it into a perpetual motion machine. Q.E.D.
So while a perfectly transparent atmosphere with no GHGs can reduce the amount of cooling that results from temperature swings, it cannot do more than reduce the cooling. There is a physical limit to how much it can warm the planet. At a maximum, if all the temperature swings were perfectly evened out, we can only get back to S-B temperature, not above it. This means that for example, a transparent atmosphere could not be responsible for the Earth’s current temperature, because the Earth’s temperature is well above the S-B theoretical temperature of ~ -18°C.
Having gotten that far, I wanted to consider what the temperature swings of the Earth might be like without an atmosphere. Basic calculations show that with the current albedo, the Earth with no atmosphere would be at a blackbody temperature of 240 W/m2 ≈ -18°C. But how much would the rotation cool the planet?
Unfortunately, the moon rotates so slowly that it is not a good analogue to the Earth. There is one bit of lunar information we can use, however. This is how fast the moon cools after dark. In that case the moon and the Earth without atmosphere would be roughly equivalent, both simply radiating to outer space. At lunar sunset, the moon’s surface temperature shown in Figure 1 is about -60°C. Over the next 30 hours, it drops steadily at a rate of about 4°C per hour. At that point the temperature is about -180°C. From there it only cools slightly for the next two weeks, because the radiation is so low. For example, at its coolest the lunar surface is at about -191°C, and at that point it is radiating a whopping two and a half watts per square metre … and as a result the radiative cooling is very, very slow.
So … for a back of the envelope calculation, we might estimate that the Earth would cool at about the lunar rate of 4°C per hour for 12 hours. During that time, it would drop by about 50°C (90°F). During the day, it might warm about the same above the average. So, we might figure that the temperature swings on the Earth without an atmosphere might be on the order of ± 50°C. (As we would expect, actual temperature swings on Earth are much smaller, with a maximum of about ± 20-25 °C, usually in the desert regions.)
How much would this ±50° swing with no atmosphere cool the planet?
Thanks to a bit of nice math from Dr. Robert Brown (here), we know that if dT is the size of the swing in temperature above and below the average, and T is the temperature of the center of the swing, the radiation varies by 1 + 6 * (dT/T)^2. With some more math (see the appendix), this would indicate that if the amount of solar energy hitting the planet is 240 W/m2 (≈ -18°C) and the swings were ± 50°C, the average temperature would be – 33°C. Some of the warming from that chilly temperature is from the atmosphere itself, and some is from the greenhouse effect.
This in turn indicates another curiosity. I’ve always assumed that the warming from the GHGs was due solely to the direct warming effects of the radiation. But a characteristic of the greenhouse radiation (downwelling longwave radiation, also called DLR) is that it is there both day and night, and from equator to poles. Oh, there are certainly differences in radiation from different locations and times. But overall, one of the big effects of the greenhouse radiation is that it greatly reduces the temperature swings because it provides extra energy in the times and places where the solar energy is not present or is greatly reduced.
This means that the greenhouse effect warms the earth in two ways—directly, and also indirectly by reducing the temperature swings. That’s news to me, and it reminds me that the best thing about studying the climate is that there is always more for me to learn.
Finally, as the planetary system warms, each additional degree of warming comes at a greater and greater cost in terms of the energy needed to warm the planet that one degree.
Part of this effect is because the cooling radiation is rising as the fourth power of the temperature. Part of the effect is because Murphy never sleeps, so that just like with your car engine, parasitic losses (losses of sensible and latent heat from the surface) go up faster than the increase in driving energy. And lastly, there are a number of homeostatic mechanisms in the natural climate system that work together to keep the earth from overheating.
These thermostatic mechanisms include, among others,
• the daily timing and number of tropical thunderstorms.
• the fact that clouds warm the Earth in the winter and cool it in the summer.
• the El Niño/La Niña ocean energy release mechanism.
These work together with other such mechanisms to maintain the whole system stable to within about half a degree per century. This is a variation in temperature of less than 0.2%. Note that doesn’t mean less than two percent. The global average temperature has changed less than two tenths of a percent in a century, an amazing stability for such an incredibly complex system ruled by something as ethereal as clouds and water vapor … I can only ascribe that temperature stability to the existence of such multiple, overlapping, redundant thermostatic mechanisms.
As a result, while the greenhouse effect has done the heavy lifting to get the planet up to its current temperature, at the present equilibrium condition the effect of variations in forcing is counterbalanced by changes in albedo and cloud composition and energy throughput, with very little resulting change in temperature.
Best to all, full moon tonight, crisp and crystalline, I’m going outside for some moon-viewing.
O beautiful full moon! Circling the pond all night even to the end Matsuo Basho, 1644-1694