A real greenhouse has windows. So does the Atmospheric “greenhouse effect”. They are similar in that they allow Sunlight in and restrict the outward flow of thermal energy. However, they differ in the mechanism. A real greenhouse primarily restricts heat escape by preventing convection while the “greenhouse effect” heats the Earth because “greenhouse gases” (GHG) absorb outgoing radiative energy and re-emit some of it back towards Earth.
The base graphic is from Wikipedia, with my annotations. There are two main “windows” in the Atmospheric “greenhouse effect”. The first, the Visible Light Window, on the left side of the graphic, allows visible and near-visible light from the Sun to pass through with small losses, and the second, the Longwave Window, on the right, allows the central portion of the longwave radiation band from the Earth to pass through with small losses, while absorbing and re-emitting the left and right portions.
The Visible Light Window
To understand how these Atmospheric windows work, we need to review some basics of so-called “blackbody” radiation. As indicated by the red curve in the graphic, the surface of the Sun is, in effect, at a temperature of 5525ºK (about 9500ºF), and therefore emits radiation with a wavelenth centered around 1/2μ (half a micron which is half a millionth of a meter). Solar light ranges from about 0.1μ to 3μ, covering the ultraviolet (UV), the visible, and the near-infrared (near-IR) bands. Most Sunlight is in the visible band from 0.38μ (which we see as violet) to 0.76μ (which we see as red), which is why our eyes evolved to be sensitive in that range. Sunlight is called “shortwave” radiation because it ranges from fractional microns to a few microns.
As the graphic indicates with the solid red area, about 70 to 75% of the downgoing Solar radiation gets through the Atmosphere, because much of the UV, and some of the visible and near-IR are blocked. (The graphic does not account for the portion of Sunlight that gets through the Atmosphere, and is then reflected back to Space by clouds and other high-albedo surfaces such as ice and white roofs. I will discuss and account for that later in this posting.)
My annotations represent the light that passes through the Visible Light Window as an orange ball with the designation 1/2μ, but please interpret that to include all the visible and near-visible light in the shortwave band.
The Longwave Window
As indicated by the pink, blue, and black curves in the graphic, the Earth is, in effect, at a temperature that ranges between a high of about 310ºK (about 98ºF) and a low of about 210ºK (about -82ºF). The reason for the range is that the temperature varies by season, by day or night, and by latitude. The portion of the Earth at about 310ºK radiates energy towards the Atmosphere at slightly shorter wavelengths than that at about 210ºK, but nearly all Earth-emitted radiation is between 5μ to 30μ, and is centered at about 10μ.
As the graphic indicates with the solid blue area, only 15% to 30% of the upgoing thermal radiation is transmitted through the Atmosphere, because nearly all the radiation in the left portion of the longwave band (from about 5μ to 8μ) and the right portion (from about 13μ to 30μ) is totally absorbed and scattered by GHG, primarily H2O (water vapor) and CO2 (carbon dioxide). Only the radiation near the center (from about 8μ to 13μ) gets a nearly free pass through the Atmosphere.
My annotations represent the thermal radiation from the Earth as a pink pentagon with the designation 7μ for the left-hand portion, a blue diamond 10μ for the center portion, and a dark blue hexagon 15μ for the right-hand portion, but please interpret these symbols to include all the radiation in their respective portions of the longwave band.
Sunlight Energy In = Thermal Energy Out
The graphic is an animated depiction of the Atmospheric “greenhouse effect” process.
On the left side:
(1) Sunlight streams through the Atmosphere towards the surface of the Earth.
(2) A portion of the Sunlight is reflected by clouds and other high-albedo surfaces and heads back through the Atmosphere towards Space. The remainder is absorbed by the Surface of the Earth, warming it.
(3) The reflected portion is lost to Space.
On the right side:
(1) The warmed Earth emits longwave radiation towards the Atmosphere. According to the first graphic, above, this consists of thermal energy in all bands ~7μ, ~10μ, and ~15μ.
(2) The ~10μ portion passes through the Atmosphere with litttle loss. The ~7μ portion gets absorbed, primarily by H2O, and the 15μ portion gets absorbed, primarily by CO2 and H2O. The absorbed radiation heats the H2O and CO2 molecules and, at their higher energy states, they collide with the other molecules that make up the air, mostly nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), ozone (O3), and argon (A) and heat them by something like conduction. The molecules in the heated air emit radiation in random directions at all bands (~7μ, ~10μ, and ~15μ). The ~10μ photons pass, nearly unimpeded, in whatever direction they happen to be emitted, some going towards Space and some towards Earth. The ~7μ and ~15μ photons go off in all directions until they run into an H2O or CO2 molecule, and repeat the absorption and re-emittance process, or until they emerge from the Atmosphere or hit the surface of the Earth.
(3) The ~10μ photons that got a free-pass from the Earth through the Atmosphere emerge and their energy is lost to Space. The ~10μ photons generated by the heating of the air emerge from the top of the Atmosphere and their energy is lost to Space, or they impact the surface of the Earth and are re-absorbed. The ~7μ and ~15μ generated by the heating of the air also emerge from the top or bottom of the Atmosphere, but there are fewer of them because they keep getting absorbed and re-emitted, each time with some transfered to the central ~10μ portion of the longwave band.
The symbols 1/2μ, 7μ, 10μ, and 15μ represent quanties of photon energy, averaged over the day and night and the seasons. Of course, Sunlight is available for only half the day and less of it falls on each square meter of surface near the poles than near the equator. Thermal radiation emitted by the Earth also varies by day and night, season, local cloud cover that blocks Sunlight, local albedo, and other factors. The graphic is designed to provide some insight into the Atmospheric “greenhouse effect”.
Even though estimates of climate sensitivity to doubling of CO2 are most likely way over-estimated by the official climate Team, it is a scientific truth that GHGs, mainly H2O but also CO2 and others, play an important role in warming the Earth via the Atmospheric “greenhouse effect”.
This and my previous posting in this series address ONLY the radiative exchange of energy. Other aspects that control the temperature range at the surface of the Earth are at least as important and they include convection (winds, storms, etc.) and precipitation that transfer a great deal of energy from the surface to the higher levels of the Atmosphere.
I plan to do a subsequent posting that looks into the violet and blue boxes in the above graphic and provides insight into the process the photons and molecules go through.
I am sure WUWT readers will find issues with my Atmospheric Windows description and graphics. I encourage each of you to make comments, all of which I will read, and some to which I will respond, most likely learning a great deal from you in the process. However, please consider that the main point of this posting, like the previous one in this series, is to give insight to those WUWT readers, who, like Einstein (and me :^) need a graphic visual before they understand and really accept any mathematical abstraction.