This series began with a mechanical analogy for the Atmospheric “Greenhouse Effect” and progressed a bit more deeply into Atmospheric Windows and Emission Spectra. In this posting, we consider the interaction between air molecules, including Nitrogen (N2), Oxygen (O2), Water Vapor (H2O) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2), with Photons of various wavelengths. This may help us visualize how energy, in the form of Photons radiated by the Sun and the Surface of the Earth, is absorbed and re-emited by Atmospheric molecules. DESCRIPTION OF THE GRAPHIC
The animated graphic has eight frames, as indicated by the counter in the lower right corner. Molecules are symbolized by letter pairs or triplets and Photons by ovals and arrows. The view is of a small portion of the cloud-free Atmosphere. (Thanks to WUWT commenter davidmhoffer for some of the ideas incorporated in this graphic.)
- During the daytime, Solar energy enters the Atmosphere in the form of Photons at wavelengths from about 0.1μ (micron – millionth of a meter) to 4μ, which is called “shortwave” radiation and is represented as ~1/2μ and symbolized as orange ovals. Most of this energy gets a free pass through the cloud-free Atmosphere. It continues down to the Surface of the Earth where some is reflected back by light areas (not shown in the animation) and where most is absorbed and warms the Surface.
- Since Earth’s temperature is well above absolute zero, both day and night, the Surface radiates Photons in all directions with the energy distributed approximately according to a “blackbody” at a given temperature. This energy is in the form of Photons at wavelengths from about 4μ to 50μ, which is called “longwave” radiation and is represented as ~7μ, ~10μ, and ~15μ and symbolized as violet, light blue, and purple ovals, respectively. The primary “greenhouse” gases (GHG) are Water Vapor (H2O) and Carbon Dioxide (CO2). The ~7μ Photon is absorbed by an H2O molecule because Water Vapor has an absorption peak in that region, the ~10μ Photon gets a free pass because neither H2O nor CO2 absorb strongly in that region, and one of the 15μ Photons gets absorbed by an H2O molecule while the other gets absorbed by a CO2 molecule because these gases have absorption peaks in that region.
- The absorbed Photons raise the energy level of their respective molecules (symbolized by red outlines).
- The energized molecules re-emit the Photons in random directions, some upwards, some downwards, and some sideways. Some of the re-emitted Photons make their way out to Space and their energy is lost there, others back down to the Surface where their energy is absorbed, further heating the Earth, and others travel through the Atmosphere for a random distance until they encounter another GHG molecule.
- This frame and the next two illustrate another way Photons are emitted, namely due to collisions between energized GHG molecules and other air molecules. As in frame (2) the Surface radiates Photons in all directions and various wavelengths.
- The Photons cause the GHG molecules to become energized and they speed up and collide with other gas molecules, energizing them. NOTE: In a gas, the molecules are in constant motion, moving in random directions at different speeds, colliding and bouncing off one another, etc. Indeed the “temperature” of a gas is something like the average speed of the molecules. In this animation, the gas molecules are fixed in position because it would be too confusing if they were all shown moving and because the speed of the Photons is so much greater than the speed of the molecules that they hardly move in the time indicated.
- The energized air molecules emit radiation at various wavelengths and in random directions, some upwards, some downwards, and some sideways. Some of the re-emitted Photons make their way out to Space and their energy is lost there, others back down to the Surface where their energy is absorbed, further heating the Earth, and others travel through the Atmosphere for a random distance until they encounter another GHG molecule.
- Having emitted the energy, the molecules cool down.
As in the other postings in this series, only radiation effects are considered because they are the key to understanding the Atmospheric “Greenhouse Effect”. I recognize that other effects are as important, and perhaps more so, in the overall heat balance of the Earth. These include clouds which reflect much of the Sun’s radiation back out to Space, and which, due to negative feedback, counteract Global Warming. Other effects include convection (wind, thunderstorms, …), precipitation (rain, snow) and conduction that are responsible for transferring energy from the Surface to the Atmosphere. It is also important to note that the Atmospheric “Greenhouse Effect” and a physical greenhouse are similar in that they both limit the rate of thermal energy flowing out of the system, but the mechanisms by which heat is retained are different. A greenhouse works primarily by preventing absorbed heat from leaving the structure through convection, i.e. sensible heat transport. The greenhouse effect heats the earth because greenhouse gases absorb outgoing radiative energy and re-emit some of it back towards earth.
That said, how does this visualization help us understand the issue of “CO2 sensitivity” which is the additional warming of the Earth Surface due to an increase in atmospheric CO2? Well, given a greater density of CO2 (and H2O) molecules in the air, there is a greater chance that a given photon will get absorbed. Stated differently, a given photon will travel a shorter distance, on average, before being absorbed by a GHG molecule and be re-emitted in a random direction, including downwards towards the Surface. That will result in more energy being recycled back to the Surface, increasing average temperatures a bit.