The Atmospheric “greenhouse effect” has been analogized to a blanket that insulates the Sun-warmed Earth and slows the rate of heat transmission, thus increasing mean temperatures above what they would be absent “greenhouse gases” (GHGs). Perhaps a better analogy would be an electric blanket that, in addition to its insulating properties, also emits thermal radiation both down and up. A real greenhouse primarily restricts heat escape by preventing convection while the “greenhouse effect” heats the Earth because GHGs absorb outgoing radiative energy and re-emit some of it back towards Earth.
Many thanks to Dave Springer and Jim Folkerts who, in comments to my previous posting Atmospheric Windows, provided links to emission graphs and a textbook “A First Course in Atmospheric Radiation” by Grant Petty, Sundog Publishing Company.
Description of graphic (from bottom to top):
Earth Surface: Warmed by shortwave (~1/2μ) radiation from the Sun, the surface emits upward radiation in the ~7μ, ~10μ, and ~15μ regions of the longwave band. This radiation approximates a smooth “blackbody” curve that peaks at the wavelength corresponding to the surface temperature.
Bottom of the Atmosphere: On its way out to Space, the radiation encounters the Atmosphere, in particular the GHGs, which absorb and re-emit radiation in the ~7μ and ~15μ regions in all directions. Most of the ~10μ radiation is allowed to pass through.
The lower violet/purple curve (adapted from figure 8.1 in Petty and based on measurements from the Tropical Pacific looking UP) indicates how the bottom of the Atmosphere re-emits selected portions back down towards the surface of the Earth. The dashed line represents a “blackbody” curve characteristic of 300ºK (equivalent to 27ºC or 80ºF). Note how the ~7μ and ~15μ regions approximate that curve, while much of the ~10μ region is not re-emitted downward.
“Greenhouse Gases”: The reason for the shape of the downwelling radiation curve is clear when we look at the absorption spectra for the most important GHGs: H2O, H2O, H2O, … H2O, and CO2. (I’ve included multiple H2O’s because water vapor, particularly in the tropical latitudes, is many times more prevalent than carbon dioxide.)
Note that H2O absorbs at up to 100% in the ~7μ region. H2O also absorbs strongly in the ~15μ region, particularly above 20μ, where it reaches 100%. CO2 absorbs at up to 100% in the ~15μ region.
Neither H2O nor CO2 absorb strongly in the ~10μ region.
Since gases tend to re-emit most strongly at the same wavelength region where they absorb, the ~7μ and ~15μ are well-represented, while the ~10μ region is weaker.
Top of the Atmosphere: The upper violet/purple curve (adapted from figure 6.6 in Petty and based on satellite measurements from the Tropical Pacific looking DOWN) indicates how the top of the Atmosphere passes certain portions of radiation from the surface of the Earth out to Space and re-emits selected portions up towards Space. The dashed line represents a “blackbody” curve characteristic of 300ºK. Note that much of the ~10μ region approximates a 295ºK curve while the ~7μ region approximates a cooler 260ºK curve. The ~15μ region is more complicated. Part of it, from about 17μ and up approximates a 260ºK or 270ºK curve, but the region from about 14μ to 17μ has had quite a big bite taken out of it. Note how this bite corresponds roughly with the CO2 absorption spectrum.
What Does This All Mean in Plain Language?
Well, if a piece of blueberry pie has gone missing, and little Johnny has blueberry juice dripping from his mouth and chin, and that is pretty good circumstantial evidence of who took it.
Clearly, the GHGs in the Atmosphere are responsible. H2O has taken its toll in the ~7μ and ~15μ regions, while CO2 has taken its bite in its special part of the ~15μ region. Radiation in the ~10μ region has taken a pretty-much free pass through the Atmosphere.
The top of the Atmosphere curve is mostly due to the lapse rate, where higher levels of the Atmosphere tend to be cooler. The ~10μ region is warmer because it is a view of the surface radiation of the Earth through an almost transparent window. The ~7μ and 15μ regions are cooler because they are radiated from closer to the top of the Atmosphere. The CO2 bite portion of the curve is still cooler because CO2 tends to be better represented at higher altitudes than H2O which is more prevalent towards the bottom.
That is a good explanation, as far as it goes. However, it seems there is something else going on. The ~7μ and ~15μ radiation emitted from the bottom of the Atmosphere is absorbed by the Earth, further warming it, and the Earth, approximating a “blackbody”, re-emits them at a variety of wavelengths, including ~10μ. This additional ~10μ radiation gets a nearly free pass through the Atmosphere and heads out towards Space, which explains why it is better represented in the top of the Atmosphere curve. In addition, some of the radiation due to collisions of energized H2O and CO2 molecules with each other and the N2 (nitrogen), O2 (oxygen) and trace gases, may produce radiation in the ~10μ region which similarly makes its way out to Space without being re-absorbed.
There is less ~15μ radiation emitted from the top of the Atmosphere than entered it from the bottom because some of the ~15μ radiation is transformed into ~10μ radiation during the process of absorption and re-emission by GHGs in the atmosphere and longwave radiation absorbed and re-emitted by the surface of the Earth.
My graphic is adapted from two curves from Petty. For clearer presentation, I smoothed them and flipped them horizontally, so wavelength would increase from left to right, as in the diagrams in my previous topics in this series. (Physical Analogy and Atmospheric Windows.)
Here they are in their original form, where the inverse of wavelength (called “wavenumber”) increases from left to right.
Source for the upper section of my graphic.
Top of the Atmosphere from Satellite Over Tropical Pacific.
[Caption from Petty: Fig. 6.6: Example of an actual infrared emission spectrum observed by the Nimbus 4 satellite over a point in the tropical Pacific Ocean. Dashed curves represent blackbody radiances at the indicated temperatures in Kelvin. (IRIS data courtesy of the Goddard EOS Distributed Active Archive Center (DAAC) and instrument team leader Dr. Rudolf A. Hanel.)]
Source for the lower section of my graphic.
Bottom of the Atmosphere from Surface of Tropical Pacific (and, lower curve, from Alaska).
[Caption from Petty: Fig. 8.1 Two examples of measured atmospheric emission spectra as seen from ground level looking up. Planck function curves corresponding to the approximate surface temperature in each case are superimposed (dashed lines). (Data courtesy of Robert Knutson, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.)]
The figures originally cited by Dave Springer and Tim Folkerts are based on measurements taken in the Arctic, where there is far less water vapor in the Atmosphere.
[Fig. 8.2 from Petty] (a) Top of the Atmosphere from 20km and (b) Bottom of the Atmosphere from surface in the Arctic. Note that this is similar to the Tropical Pacific, at temperatures that are about 30ºK to 40ºK cooler. The CO2 bite is more well-defined. Also, the bite in the 9.5μ to 10μ area is more apparent. That bite is due to O2 and O3 absorption spectra.
This and my previous two postings in this series Physical Analogy and Atmospheric Windows 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 (clouds, rain, snow, etc.) that transfer a great deal of energy from the surface to the higher levels of the Atmosphere.
For those who may have missed my previous posting, here is my Sunlight Energy In = Thermal Energy Out animated graphic that depicts the Atmospheric “greenhouse effect” process in a simlified form.
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 Emissions Spectra 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 ones 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.