Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
A couple of apparently related theories have been making the rounds lately. One is by Nikolov and Zeller (N&Z), expounded here and replied to here on WUWT. The other is by Hans Jelbring, discussed at Tallblokes Talkshop. As I understand their theories, they say that the combination of gravity plus an atmosphere without greenhouse gases (GHGs) is capable of doing what the greenhouse effect does—raise the earth at least 30°C above what we might call the “theoretical Stefan-Boltzmann (S-B) temperature.”
So what is the S-B temperature, theoretical or otherwise?
A curious fact is that almost everything around us is continually radiating energy in the infrared frequencies. You, me, the trees, the ocean, clouds, ice, all the common stuff gives off infrared radiation. That’s how night-vision goggles work, they let you see in the infrared. Here’s another oddity. Ice, despite being brilliant white because it reflects slmost all visible light, absorbs infrared very well (absorptivity > 0.90). It turns out that most things absorb (and thus emit) infrared quite well, including the ocean, and plants (see Note 3 below). Because of this, the planet is often treated as a “blackbody” for IR, a perfect absorber and a perfect emitter of infrared radiation. The error introduced in that way is small for first-cut calculations.
The Stefan-Boltzmann equation specifies how much radiation is emitted at a given temperature. It states that the radiation increases much faster than the temperature. It turns out that radiation is proportional to absolute temperature to the fourth power. The equation, for those math inclined, is
Radiation = Emissivity times SBconstant times Temperature^4
where the Stefan-Boltzmann constant is a tiny number, 0.0000000567 (5.67E-8). For a blackbody, emissivity = 1.
This “fourth-power” dependence means that if you double the absolute temperature (measured in kelvins), you get sixteen (2^4) times the radiation (measured in watts per square metre, “W/m2”). We can also look at it the other way, that temperature varies as the fourth root of radiation. That means if we double the radiation, the temperature only goes up by about 20% (2^0.25)
Let me call the “theoretical S-B temperature” the temperature that an evenly heated blackbody planet in outer space would have for a given level of incoming radiation in W/m2. It is “theoretical”, because a real, revolving airless planet getting heated by a sun with the same average radiation will be cooler than that theoretical S-B temperature. We might imagine that there are thousands of mini-suns in a sphere around the planet, so the surface heating is perfectly even.
Figure 1. Planet lit by multiple suns. Image Source.
On average day and night over the planetary surface, the Earth receives about 240 W/m2 of energy from the sun. The theoretical S-B temperature for this amount of radiation (if it were evenly distributed) is about -18°C, well below freezing. But instead of being frozen, the planet is at about +14°C or so. That’s about thirty degrees above the theoretical S-B temperature. So why isn’t the planet a block of ice?
Let me take a short detour on the way to answering that question in order to introduce the concept of the “elevator speech” to those unfamiliar with the idea.
The “elevator speech” is simply a distillation of an idea down to its very basics. It is how I would explain my idea to you if I only had the length of an elevator ride to explain it. As such it has two extremely important functions:
1. It forces me to clarify my own ideas on whatever I’m discussing. I can’t get into handwaving and hyperbole, I can’t be unclear about what I’m claiming, if I only have a few sentences to work with.
2. It allows me to clearly communicate those ideas to others.
In recent discussions on the subject, I have been asking for that kind of “elevator speech” distillation of Jelbring’s or Nikolov’s ideas, so that a) I can see if whoever is explaining the theory really understands what they are saying and, if so, then b) so that I can gain an understanding of the ideas of Jelbring or Nikolov to see if I am missing something important.
Let me give you an example to show what I mean. Here’s an elevator speech about the greenhouse effect:
The poorly-named “greenhouse effect” works as follows:
• The surface of the earth emits energy in the form of thermal longwave radiation.
• Some of that energy is absorbed by greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.
• In turn, some of that absorbed energy is radiated by the atmosphere back to the surface.
• As a result of absorbing that energy from the atmosphere, the surface is warmer than it would be in the absence of the GHGs.
OK, that’s my elevator speech about why the Earth is not a block of ice. Note that it is not just saying what is happening. It is saying how it is happening as well.
I have asked, over and over, on various threads, for people who understand either the N&Z theory or the Jelbring theory, to give me the equivalent elevator speech regarding either or both of those theories. I have gotten nothing scientific so far. Oh, there’s the usual handwaving, vague claims of things like ‘the extra heat at the surface, is just borrowed by the work due to gravity, from the higher up regions of the atmosphere‘ with no mechanism for the “borrowing”, that kind of empty statement. But nothing with any meat, nothing with any substance, nothing with any explanatory value or scientific content.
So to begin with, let me renew my call for the elevator speech on either theory. Both of them make my head hurt, I can’t really follow their vague descriptions. So … is anyone who understands either theory willing to step forward and explain it in four or five sentences?
But that’s not really why I’m writing this. I’m writing this because of the claims of the promoters of the two theories. They say that somehow a combination of gravity and a transparent, GHG-free atmosphere can conspire to push the temperature of a planet well above the theoretical S-B temperature, to a condition similar to that of the Earth.
I hold that with a transparent GHG-free atmosphere, neither the hypothetical “N&Z effect” nor the “Jelbring effect” can possibly raise the planetary temperature above the theoretical S-B temperature. But I also make a much more general claim. I hold it can be proven that there is no possible mechanism involving gravity and the atmosphere that can raise the temperature of a planet with a transparent GHG-free atmosphere above the theoretical S-B temperature.
The proof is by contradiction. This is a proof where you assume that the theorem is right, and then show that if it is right it leads to an impossible situation, so it cannot possibly be right.
So let us assume that we have the airless perfectly evenly heated blackbody planet that I spoke of above, evenly surrounded by a sphere of mini-suns. The temperature of this theoretical planet is, of course, the theoretical S-B temperature.
Now suppose we add an atmosphere to the planet, a transparent GHG-free atmosphere. If the theories of N&K and Jelbring are correct, the temperature of the planet will rise.
But when the temperature of a perfect blackbody planet rises … the surface radiation of that planet must rise as well.
And because the atmosphere is transparent, this means that the planet is radiating to space more energy than it receives. This is an obvious violation of conservation of energy, so any theories proposing such a warming must be incorrect.
Now, I’m happy for folks to comment on this proof, or to give us their elevator speech about the Jelbring or the N&Z hypothesis. I’m not happy to be abused for my supposed stupidity, nor attacked for my views, nor pilloried for claimed errors of commission and omission. People are already way too passionate about this stuff. Roger Tattersall, the author of the blog “Tallbloke’s Talkshop”, has banned Joel Shore for saying that the N&Z hypothesis violates conservation of energy. Roger’s exact words to Joel were:
… you’re not posting here unless and until you apologise to Nikolov and Zeller for spreading misinformation about conservation of energy in their theory all over the blogosphere and failing to correct it.
Now, I have done the very same thing that Joel did. I’ve said around the web that the N&Z theory violates conservation of energy. So I went to the Talkshop and asked, even implored, Roger not to do such a foolish and anti-scientific thing as banning someone for their scientific views. Since I hold the same views and I committed the same thought-crimes, it was more than theoretical to me. Roger has remained obdurate, however, so I am no longer able to post there in good conscience. Roger Tallbloke has been a gentleman throughout, as is his style, and I hated to leave. But I did what Joel did, I too said N&Z violated conservation of energy, so in solidarity and fairness I’m not posting at the Talkshop anymore.
And more to the point, even if I hadn’t done what Joel did, my practice is to never post at or even visit sites like RealClimate, Tamino’s, and now Tallbloke’s Talkshop, places that ban and censor scientific views. I don’t want to be responsible for their page views counter to go up by even one. Banning and censorship are anathema to me, and I protest them in the only way I can. I leave them behind to discuss their ideas in their now cleansed, peaceful, sanitized, and intellectually sterile echo chamber, free from those pesky contrary views … and I invite others to vote with their feet as well.
But I digress, my point is that passions are running high on this topic, so let’s see if we can keep the discussion at least relatively chill …
TO CONCLUDE: I’m interested in people who can either show that my proof is wrong, or who will give us your elevator speech about the science underlying either N&K or Jelbring’s theory. No new theories need apply, we have enough for this post. And no long complicated explanations, please. I have boiled the greenhouse effect down to four sentences. See if you can match that regarding the N&K or the Jelbring effect.
NOTE 1: Here’s the thing about a planet with a transparent atmosphere. There is only one object that can radiate to space, the surface. As a result, it is constrained to emit the exact amount of radiation it absorbs. So there are no gravity/atmospheric phenomena that can change that. It cannot emit more or less than what it absorbs while staying at the same temperature, conservation of energy ensures that. This means that while the temperature can be lower than the theoretical S-B temperature, as is the case with the moon, it cannot be more than the theoretical S-B temperature. To do that it would have to radiate more than it is receiving, and that breaks the conservation of energy.
Once you have GHGs in the atmosphere, of course, some of the surface radiation can get absorbed in the atmosphere. In that case, the surface radiation is no longer constrained, and the surface is free to take up a higher temperature while the system as a whole emits the same amount of radiation to space that it absorbs.
NOTE 2: An atmosphere, even a GHG-free atmosphere, can reduce the cooling due to uneven insolation. The hottest possible average temperature for a given average level of radiation (W/m2) occurs when the heating is uniform in both time and space. If the total surface radiation remains the same (as it must with a transparent atmosphere), any variations in temperature from that uniform state will lower the average temperature. Variations include day/night temperature differences, and equator/polar differences. Since any atmosphere can reduce the size of e.g. day/night temperature swings, even a transparent GHG-free atmosphere will reduce the amount of cooling caused by the temperature swings. See here for further discussion.
But what such an atmosphere cannot do is raise the temperature beyond the theoretical maximum average temperature for that given level of incoming radiation. That’s against the law … of conservation of energy.
NOTE 3: My bible for many things climatish, including the emissivity (which is equal to the absorptivity) of common substances, is Geiger’s The Climate Near The Ground, first published sometime around the fifties when people still measured things instead of modeling them. He gives the following figures for IR emissivity at 9 to 12 microns:
Water, 0.96 Fresh snow, 0.99 Dry sand, 0.95 Wet sand, 0.96 Forest, deciduous, 0.95 Forest, conifer, 0.97 Leaves Corn, Beans, 0.94
and so on down to things like:
Mouse fur, 0.94 Glass, 0.94
You can see why the error from considering the earth as a blackbody in the IR is quite small.
I must admit, though, that I do greatly enjoy the idea of some boffin at midnight in his laboratory measuring the emissivity of common substances when he hears the snap of the mousetrap he set earlier, and he thinks, hmmm …