Guest post by Willis Eschenbach
There is a lot of misinformation floating around the web about the greenhouse effect works. It is variously described as a “blanket” that keeps the Earth warm, or a “mirror” that reflects part of the heat back to Earth, or “a pane of glass” that somehow keeps energy from escaping. It is none of these things.
A planetary “greenhouse” is a curiosity, a trick of nature. It works solely because although a sphere only has one side, a shell has two sides. The trick has nothing to do with greenhouse gases. It does not require an atmosphere. In fact, a greenhouse can be built entirely of steel. A thought experiment shows how a steel greenhouse would work.
Before we start, however, a digression regarding temperature. The radiation emitted by a blackbody varies with the fourth power of the temperature. As a result, for a blackbody, we can measure the temperature in units of radiation, which are watts per square metre (W/m2). For objects with a temperatures found on the the Earth, this radiation is in the range called “longwave” or “infrared” radiation. See the Appendix for the formula which relates temperature to radiation.
This means that we can denote the temperature of a blackbody using W/m2 as well as the traditional measures (Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin). The advantage is that while temperature (degrees) is not conserved, energy (W/m2) is conserved. So we can check to see if energy lost is equal to energy gained, since energy is neither being created nor destroyed by the climate.
For our thought experiment, imagine a planet the size of the Earth, a perfect blackbody, heated from the interior at 235 watts per square metre of surface area. How is it heated from the interior? Doesn’t matter, we’ll say “radioactive elements”, that sounds scientific.
The planet is in interstellar space, with no atmosphere and no nearby stars. The equilibrium surface temperature of this planet is, of course, 235 W/m2. To maintain the equilibrium temperature, it constantly radiates this amount of energy out to space. Coincidentally, this is the amount of solar radiation that makes it past the clouds to warm the Earth. If we convert 235 W/m2 to one of our normal temperature scales, it is -19 Celsius (C), or -3° Fahrenheit (F), or 254 Kelvins (K). It’s the temperature that the Earth would have if there were no greenhouse effect. That is to say … cold.
Now imagine that the planet gets completely surrounded by a thin black steel shell, located a few thousand metres above the surface, as shown in a cutaway view in the picture above, and in Figure 1 below. What happens to the surface temperature of the planet? (Assume the shell has the same outer surface area as the surface. For an earth-sized planet with a shell two kilometers above the surface everywhere, the difference in area is only six hundredths of one percent.)
In order to maintain its thermal equilibrium, the whole system must still radiate 235 W/m2 out to space. To do this, the steel shell must warm until it is radiating at 235 watts per square metre. Of course, since a shell has an inside and an outside, it will also radiate 235 watts inward to the planet. The planet is now being heated by 235 W/m2 of energy from the interior, and 235 W/m2 from the shell. This will warm the planetary surface until it reaches a temperature of 470 watts per square metre. In vacuum conditions as described, this would be a perfect greenhouse, with no losses of any kind. Figure 1 shows how it works.
Figure 1. Building a steel greenhouse. (A) Planet without greenhouse. Surface temperature is 235 W/m2 heated from the interior. (B) Planet surrounded by steel greenhouse shell. Shell radiates the same amount to space as the planet without the shell, 235 W/m2. It radiates the same inward, which warms the planet to 470 W/m2 (29 C, 83°F, 302 K). [Clarification added] Note that the distance from the shell to the planet is greatly exaggerated. In reality, it is close enough to the planet that the difference in the areas can be neglected in practice.
The trick can be repeated again, by surrounding the planet and the shell with a second outer shell. In this two shell case, the planetary surface temperature (in W/m2) will be three times the initial surface temperature.
In nature, planets have atmospheric shells, of course, rather than steel shells. The trick works the same way, however. Rather than being warmed from the inside, the Earth receives 235 W/m2 from the sun. Solar radiation passes through the atmosphere. Outgoing longwave radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere, just as it is absorbed by the steel shell shown in Fig. 1.
So that’s the trick of the greenhouse. It has nothing to do with blankets, or mirrors, or greenhouse gases. It works even when it is built out of steel. It depends on the fact that a shell radiates in two directions, inwards and outwards. This radiation keeps the planet warmer than it would be without the shell.
Now, it is tempting to think that we could model the Earth in this manner, as a sphere surrounded by a single shell. This is called a “two-layer” model, with the two layers being the surface and the atmospheric shell. And in fact, a number of simplified climate models have been built in this way. Un-noticed by their programmers, however, is that is not physically possible to model the Earth as a two-layer system. Figure 2 shows why. Note that in all cases, the system has to remain in thermal equilibrium. This means that the surface must radiate as much as it absorbs, and the shell must also radiate as much as it absorbs. In addition, radiation from the shell to space (upwelling longwave radiation or ULR) must equal radiation from the shell to the Earth (downwelling longwave radiation, or DLR)
Figure 2. Single-shell (“two-layer”) greenhouse system, including various losses. S is the sun, E is the Earth, and G is the atmospheric greenhouse shell around the Earth. The height of the shell is greatly exaggerated; in reality the shell is so close to the Earth that they have about the same area, and thus the small difference in area can be neglected. Fig. 2(a) shows a perfect greenhouse. W is the total watts/m2 available to the greenhouse system after albedo. Fig. 2(b) is the same as Fig. 2(a) plus radiation losses Lr which pass through the atmosphere. Fig. 2(c) is the same as Fig. 2(b), plus the effect of absorption losses La. Fig. 2(d) is the same as Fig. 2(c), plus the effect of thermal losses Lt.
Figure 2(a) shows the same situation as Figure 1(B), which is a perfect planetary greenhouse. In this case, however, it is heated by an amount of energy “W”, which is coming from the sun. The planet receives solar radiation in the amount of “W” from the sun, and longwave radiation “W” from the atmospheric shell. The surface temperature is thus 2W. All energy flows are in Watts/square metre (W/m2).
Figure 2(b) adds two losses. The first is the reflection from the Earth’s albedo (Wo – W). This is energy which never enters the system and is reflected back into space. We are still getting the same energy entering the system (W). The second loss Lr is from radiation which goes from the surface to space through the “atmospheric window”. Because of the second loss, the surface of the Earth does not get as warm as in a perfect system. In a perfect system, the temperature of the surface is 2W. But including the radiation loss Lr, the surface temperature drops to 2W – 2Lr.
Figure 2(c) adds another loss La, which is the solar radiation which is absorbed by the shell. This cuts the radiation hitting the surface down to W – La. Including this loss, the surface temperature is 2W – 2Lr – La.
Figure 2(d) adds the final loss. This is Lt, the thermal loss. It is the sensible energy (energy you can feel) and latent energy (evaporation) which is transported from the surface to the shell by convection. Including all of these losses, the surface temperature of the Earth is 2W – 2Lr – La – Lt.
Now, why can’t the Earth be modeled in this manner? A look at the size of the various losses shows why. Here is the canonical global energy budget, called the “Kiehl/Trenberth” budget, or the K/T budget.
Figure 3. The Kiehl/Trenberth Global Energy Budget. This is a “two layer” representation, with the surface and the atmosphere being the two layers. Lr, the radiation loss, is the 40 W/m2 labeled “Atmospheric Window”. La, the absorption loss, is the 67 W/m2 labelled “Absorbed by Atmosphere”. Lt, the thermal loss, is 102 W/m2. This is the sum of the 24 W/m2 labelled “Thermals” and the 78 W/m2 labelled “Evapo-transpiration”. W, the energy from the sun, is the incoming solar radiation of 342 W/m2 less the 107 W/m2 that is reflected by the surface and the clouds. This means that W is 235 W/m2. SOURCE
What’s wrong with this picture? Note that the temperature of the Earth is 390 W/m2, labelled as “Surface Radiation”. This is 15 C, or 59°F. But from Fig. 2(d), we know that the surface temperature of a greenhouse system with a single shell, as shown in the drawing, is 2W (470) – 2Lr (80) – La (67) – Lt (102) = 221 W/m2. This is far below the known surface temperature of the Earth. In other words, a single shell greenhouse system simply isn’t efficient enough to give a surface temperature which is warm enough to allow for the known losses.
So where is the problem with the K/T budget diagram? The hidden fault is that the upward radiation from the atmospheric layer does not equal the downward radiation. There is 195 W/m2 going to space from the atmospheric shell, and 324 W/m2 going down to the surface.
In order to get enough energy to allow for the known losses, the simplest model requires two atmospheric shells. A perfect greenhouse with two shells would give a surface temperature of 3W, or 705 W/m2. This is enough to allow for the known losses, and still give a surface temperature which matches that of the Earth. Figure 4 shows one such possible system.
Figure 4. Simplest greenhouse global energy budget capable of representing the Earth. Note that all major flows in the K/T energy budget have been maintained. There are two shells, which must be physically separate. These are the lower troposphere, and the lowest stratosphere. They are separated by the tropopause.
This budget fulfils all of the requirements for thermal equilibrium. The same amount is radiated upwards and downwards by each layer. The amount absorbed by each part of the system equals the amount radiated. Further verification of this energy budget is the 147 W/m2 emission from just above the tropopause. This converts to a Celsius temperature of about -50 C, which is a typical temperature for the lowest part of the stratosphere.
I have written a simplified Excel radiation/evaporation/convection model which encapsulates the above system. It is available here.
I invite people to play with the model. It is what I term a “Tinkertoy” model, which is what I call the simplest possible model that can represent a particular reality. One of the interesting results from the model is that there can be very little thermal loss between the inner and the outer atmospheric layers. If there is more than a trivial amount of leakage, the surface cools significantly. Among the other insights yielded by the model is that a change equivalent to a doubling of CO2 (an increase of 3.7 W/m2 downwelling radiation at the top of the atmosphere) can be cancelled by a 1% increase in the upper and lower cloud reflections.
Experiment with the values, it is an interesting insight into the energy flows in the simplest possible climate model that can represent the Earth’s greenhouse system.
The formula that relates the temperature to radiation is called the “Stefan-Bolzmann” equation:
R = sigma * epsilon * T^4
where r = radiation (W/m2)
sigma = the Stefan-Boltzmann constant, 5.67 * 10^-8
epsilon = the emissivity of the body, which for a blackbody = 1
T^4 = absolute temperature in Kelvins (which is Celsius plus 273.15) raised to the fourth power