Guest post By Ben Herman and Roger A. Pielke Sr.
During the past several months there have been various, unpublished studies circulating around the blogosphere and elsewhere claiming that the “greenhouse effect” cannot warm the Earth’s atmosphere. We would like to briefly explain the arguments that have been put forth and why they are incorrect. Two of the primary arguments that have been used are
- By virtue of the second law of Thermodynamics, heat cannot be transferred from a colder to a warmer body, and
- Since solar energy is the basic source of all energy on Earth, if we do not change the amount of solar energy absorbed, we cannot change the effective radiating temperature of the Earth.
Both of the above statements are certainly true, but as we will show, the so-called “greenhouse theory” does not violate either of these two statements. (we use quotation marks around the words “greenhouse theory” to indicate that while this terminology has been generally adopted to explain the predicted warming with the addition of absorbing gases into the atmosphere, the actual process is quite a bit different from how a greenhouse heats).
With regards to the violation of the second law, what actually happens when absorbing gases are added to the atmosphere is that the cooling is slowed down. Equilibrium with the incoming absorbed sunlight is maintained by the emission of infrared radiation to space. When absorbing gases are added to the atmosphere, more of emitted radiation from the ground is absorbed by the atmosphere. This results in increased downward radiation toward the surface, so that the rate of escape of IR radiation to space is decreased, i.e., the rate of infrared cooling is decreased. This results in warming of the lower atmosphere and thus the second law is not violated. Thus, the warming is a result of decreased cooling rates.
Going to the second statement above, it is true that in equilibrium, if the amount of solar energy absorbed is not changed, then the amount of IR energy escaping out of the top of the atmosphere also cannot change. Therefore the effective radiating temperature of the atmosphere cannot change. But, the effective radiating temperature of the atmosphere is different from the vertical profile of temperature in the atmosphere. The effective radiating temperature is that T that will give the proper value of upward IR radiation at the top of the atmosphere such that it equals the solar radiation absorbed by the Earth-atmosphere system.
In other words, it is the temperature such that 4 pi x Sigma T4 equals pi Re2 Fso, where Re is the Earth’s radius, and Fso is the solar constant. Now, when we add more CO2, the absorption per unit distance increases, and this warms the atmosphere. But the increased absorption also means that less radiation from lower, warmer levels of the atmosphere can escape to space. Thus, more of the escaping IR radiation originates from higher, cooler levels of the atmosphere. Thus, the same effective radiating temperature can exist, but the atmospheric column has warmed.
These arguments, of course, do not take into account feedbacks which will kick in as soon as a warming (or cooling) begins.
The bottom line here is that when you add IR absorbing gases to the atmosphere, you slow down the loss of energy from the ground and the ground must warm up. The rest of the processes, including convection, conduction, feedbacks, etc. are too complicated to discuss here and are not completely understood anyway. But the radiational forcing due to the addition of greenhouse gases must result in a warming contribution to the atmosphere. By itself, this will not result in a change of the effective radiation temperature of the atmosphere, but it will result in changes in the vertical profile of temperature.
The so-called “greenhouse effect” is real. The question is how much will this effect be, and this is not a simple question. There are also questions being raised as to the very sign of some of the larger feedbacks to add to the confusion. Our purpose here was to merely point out that the addition of absorbing gases into the atmosphere must result in warming, contrary to some research currently circulating that says to the contrary.
For those that might still question this conclusion, consider taking away the atmosphere from the Earth, but change nothing else, i.e., keep the solar albedo the same (the lack of clouds would of course change this), and calculate the equilibrium temperature of the Earth’s surface. If you’ve done your arithmetic correctly, you should have come up with something like 255 K. But with the atmosphere, it is about 288 K, 33 degrees warmer. This is the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere.