Solar “light” radiation in = Earth “heat” radiation to Space out! That’s old news to those of us who understand all energy is fungible (may be converted to different forms of energy) and energy/mass is conserved (cannot be created nor destroyed).
My Visualizing series [Physical Analogy, Atmospheric Windows, Emission Spectra, and Molecules/Photons] has garnered almost 2000 comments, mostly positive. I’ve learned a lot from WUWT readers who know more than I do. However, some commenters seem to have been taken in by scientific-sounding objections to the basic science behind the Atmospheric “Greenhouse Effect”. Their objections seemed to add more heat than light to the discussion. This posting is designed to get back to basics and perhaps transform our heated arguments into more enlightened understanding :^)
[Click on image for larger version]
As I’ve mentioned before, during my long career as a system engineer I’ve worked with many talented mathematical analysts who always provided precise results, mostly correct, but some precisely wrong, usually due to mistaken assumptions. I got into the habit of doing a “back of the envelope” calculation of my own as a “sanity check” on their results. If their results matched within reasonable limits, I accepted them. If not, I investigated further. In those days my analysis was really done using a slide rule and scrap paper, but I now use spreadsheets.
The graphic above is based on an excellent spreadsheet from http://serc.carleton.edu/files/introgeo/models/mathematical/examples/XLPlanck.xls. It uses Planck’s Law to calculate the black body radiation spectrum from the Sun, as observed at the top of the Earth’s Atmosphere. It also may be used to calculate the radiation spectrum from the Earth System (Atmosphere and Surface, see below for explanation) at any assumed temperature. (I will refer to this spreadsheet as “Carleton” in this posting.)
I modified the Carleton spreadsheet to compute the mean Solar radiation per square meter absorbed by the Earth System, which turns out to be 240 Watts/m^2. I then used the spreadsheet to determine the effective mean temperature of the Earth System that would emit an equal amount of energy to Space, and that turned out to be 255 Kelvins (-18ºC which is 1ºF).
Since the mean temperature at the surface of the Earth is 288 Kelvins (+15ºC which is 59ºF), that leaves 33 Kelvins (33ºC which is 58ºF) to be accounted for. Guess how we acount for it?
The yellow curve (above left) shows that Solar radiation is in a tall, narrow “shortwave” range, from about 0.1μm (microns, or millionths of a meter) to about 4μm, which we call ultra-violet, visual, and near-infrared. The vertical axis is Intensity of the radiation, measured in Watts/m^2/μm, and the horizontal axis is Wavelength, measured in μm. If you divide the area under the yellow curve into vertical strips, and add up the total area, you get 240 Watts/m^2.
Since we humans sense the visual portion of this radiation as “light”, that is the name we give it, and that has led to the false assumption that it contains no “heat” (or “thermal”) energy.
The violet curve (above right) shows that, assuming a mean temperature of 255 K, Earth System radiation to Space is in a squat, wide “longwave” range, from about 5μm to beyond 40μm, which we call mid- and far-infrared. If you divide the area under the violet curve into vertical strips, and add up the total area, you get the same 240 Watts/m^2 as is under the yellow curve.
The graph on the left shows the actual observed Solar radiation spectrum (in red) as measured at the top of the Atmosphere. It is superimposed on a black body model (in blue) showing very good correlation. Thus, while the Sun is not exactly a black body, it is OK to assume it is for this type of “sanity check” exercise.
If you calculate the area under the curve you get about 1366 Watts/m^2. That means that a square meter of perfect black body material, held perpendicular to the Sun, would absorb 1366 Watts.
However, the Earth is not a perfect black body, neither is it a flat surface perpendicular to the Sun! So, to plot the yellow curve at the top of this posting, I had to adjust that value accordingly. There are two adjustments:
- The Earth may be approximated as a sphere, with the Sun shining on only half of it at any given time. The adjustment factor for this correction is 0.25.
- The albedo (reflectiveness) of the Earth system, primarily clouds and light-colored areas on the Surface such as ice, causes some of the Solar radiation to be reflected back out to Space without contributing any energy to the Earth System. The adjustment factor for this correction is 0.7.
After applying these adjustments, the net Solar energy absorbed by the Earth System is 240 Watts/m^2.
The graph on the right shows the black body model for an Earth System at a mean temperature of 255 K, a temperature that results in the same 240 Watts/m^2 being emitted out to Space.
Of course, the Earth System is not a perfect black body, as shown by the graph in the upper panel of the illustration below, which plots actual observations from 20 km looking down. (Adapted from Grant Petty, A First Course in Atmospheric Radiation, Figure 8.2, http://www.sundogpublishing.com/AtmosRad/Excerpts/index.html.)
The actual measured radiation is the dark squiggly curve. Note that it jigs and jags up and down between the topmost dashed curve, which is the black body spectrum for a temperature of 270 K and a lower dashed curve which is the black body spectrum for 230 K. This data was taken over the Arctic, most likely during the daytime. The Petty book also has a graph looking down from over the Tropical Pacific which ranges from 300 K down to 210 K. Observations will vary by tens of degrees from day to night, summer to winter, and Tropical to Polar.
However, it is clear that my result, based on matching 240 Watts/m^2, is within a reasonable range of the true mean temperature of the Earth System as viewed from Space.
NOTE ABOUT THE ABOVE ILLUSTRATION
WUWT readers will notice some apparent inconsistencies in the graphs above. The top and bottom panels, from Petty, peak at 15μm to 20μm, while the purple, blue, and black curves in the middle panel, and the Earth System curves from the Carleton spreadsheet I used (see above) peak in the 9μm to 11μm range. Also, the Petty black body curves peak at a “Radiance” around 100 mW/m^2/sr cm^-1 while the black body curves from Carleton peak at an “Intensity” of around 14 W/m^2/μm. Furthermore, if you look closely at the Petty curves, the labels on the black body curves are mirror image! What is going on?
Well, I know some of the reasons, but not all. (I hope commenters who are more fluent in this than I am will confirm my explanations and provide more information about the differences between “Radiance” and “Intensity”.) I have Googled and Wikied the Internet and am still somewhat confused. Here is what I know:
- The horizontal axis in Petty’s plots are what he calls “Wavenumber”, increasing from left to right, which is the number of waves that fit into a cm (centimeter, one hundredth of a meter).
- This is proportional to the frequency of the radiation, and the frequency is the inverse of the wavelength. Thus, his plots are the mirror image of plots based on wavelength increasing from left to right.
- The spreadsheet I used, and my previous experience with visual, and near-, mid-, and far-IR as used in military systems, always uses wavelength increasing from left to right.
- So, when I constructed the above illustration, I reversed Petty’s curves, which explains why the labels on the black body curves are mirror image.
- Fortunately, Petty also included a wavelength legend, which I faithfully reproduced, in non-mirror image, at the top of each plot.
But, that still does not explain why the Petty black body curves peak at a longer wavelength than the Carleton spreadsheet and other graphics on the Internet. I tried to reproduce Petty’s blackbody curves by multiplying the Carleton values by the wavelength (μm) and that did not move the peak to the right enough. So, I multiplied by the wavelength again (μm^2) and, voila, the peaks agreed! (I hope some WUWT reader will explain why the Petty graphs have this perverse effect. advTHANKSance!)
ANSWERING THE OBJECTIONS TO BASIC ATMOSPHERIC “GREENHOUSE EFFECT” SCIENCE
First of all, let me be clear where I am coming from. I’m a Lukewarmer-Skeptic who accepts that H2O, CO2 and other so-called “greenhouse gases” in the Atmosphere do cause the mean temperature of the Earth Surface and Atmosphere to be higher than they would be if everything was the same (Solar radiation, Earth System Albedo, …) but the Atmosphere was pure nitrogen. The main scientific question for me, is how much does the increase in human-caused CO2 and human-caused albedo reduction increase the mean temperature above what it would be with natural cycles and processes? My answer is “not much”, because perhaps 0.1ºC to 0.2ºC of the supposed 0.8ºC increase since 1880 is due to human activities. The rest is due to natural cycles and processes over which we humans have no control. The main public policy question for me, is how much should we (society) do about it? Again, my answer is “not much”, because the effect is small and a limited increase in temperatures and CO2 may turn out to have a net benefit.
So, my motivation for this Visualizing series is not to add to the Alarmist “the sky is falling” panic, but rather to help my fellow Skeptics avoid the natural temptation to fall into an “equal and opposite” falsehood, which some of those on my side, who I call “Disbelievers”, do when they fail to acknowledge the basic facts of the role of H2O and CO2 and other gases in helping to keep temperatures in a livable range.
Objection #1: Visual and near-visual radiation is merely “light” which lacks the “quality” or “oomph” to impart warmth to objects upon which it happens to fall.
Answer #1: A NASA webpage targeted at children is sometimes cited because they say the near-IR beam from a TV remote control is not warm to the touch. Of course, that is not because it is near-visual radiation, but rather because it is very low power. All energy is fungible, and can be changed from one form to another. Thus, the 240 Watts/m^2 of visible and near-visible Solar energy that reaches and is absorbed by the Earth System, has the effect of warming the Earth System exactly as much as an equal number of Watts/m^2 of “thermal” mid- and far-IR radiation.
Objection #2: The Atmosphere, which is cooler than the Earth Surface, cannot warm the Earth Surface.
Answer #2: The Second law of Thermodynamics is often cited as the source of this falsehood. The correct interpretation is that the Second Law refers to net warming, which can only pass from the warmer to the cooler object. The back-radiation from the Atmosphere to the Earth Surface has been measured (see lower panel in the above illustration). All matter above absolute zero emits radiation and, once emitted, that radiation does not know if it is travelling from a warmer to a cooler surface or vice-versa. Once it arrives it will either be reflected or absorbed, according to its wavelength and the characteristics of the material it happens to impact.
Objection #3: The Atmospheric “Greenhouse Effect” is fictional. A glass greenhouse works mainly by preventing or reducing convection and the Atmosphere does not work that way at all.
Answer #3: I always try to put “scare quotes” around the word “greenhouse” unless referring to the glass variety because the term is misleading. Yes, a glass greenhouse works by restricting convection, and the fact that glass passes shortwave radiation and not longwave makes only a minor contribution. Thus, I agree it is unfortunate that the established term for the Atmospheric warming effect is a bit of a misnomer. However, we are stuck with it. But, enough of semantics. Notice that the Earth System mean temperature I had to use to provide 240 Watts/m^2 of radiation to Space to balance the input absorbed from by the Earth System from the Sun was 255 K. However, the actual mean temperature at the Surface is closer to 288 K. How to explain the extra 33 K (33ºC or 58ºF)? The only rational explanation is the back-radiation from the Atmosphere to the Surface.