The Earth s Atmosphere

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2 THE EARTH S ATMOSPHERE Figure 7. Atmospheric layers are determined by the way the temperature changes with increasing height. From J. R. Eagleman, Meteorology: The Atmosphere in Action. Wadsworth. Reprinted by permission. 13

5 THE SUN-EARTH SYSTEM be warmer than the water; a dark shirt gets hotter than a white one. But if we were to measure the temperature of everything all over the Earth, we would find a relatively constant longtime average temperature: 288 K. Solid objects at any temperature emit radiation at all wavelengths, and Wien s law tells us where, for a given temperature, the maximum amount of radiation is emitted. For an object whose temperature is 288 K, this peak is at about 10 micrometers. (A micrometer is a millionth of a meter.) A more involved calculation would show that about 60% of the radiation from an object at 288 K lies between 6 and 17 micrometers, the infrared region of the spectrum. So the majority of the radiation being emitted by the Earth lies in the near and intermediate infrared, the very region where, as Figure 10 shows, water vapor, carbon dioxide, and ozone are strongly absorbing. Nitrogen and oxygen, which comprise over 99% of the atmosphere by volume, do not absorb energy in the near infrared, so relatively minor atmospheric constituents turn out to have an importance far greater than their numbers would indicate. Figure 11 shows a summary of the radiation from the Sun arriving at the top of the atmosphere and the radiation leaving the surface of the Earth. Notice the very different wavelength regions of the two, a major factor in the greenhouse effect. The figure also shows, roughly, the spectral regions absorbed and transmitted by the Earth s atmosphere, listing some of the gases responsible for the absorption. Now let us assume that the Earth is in equilibrium, so that the amount of energy coming in equals the amount leaving. One thing to keep in mind is that the Earth may lose energy only in the upward (or outward) direction, while the atmosphere and clouds lose part of their energy in an upward direction and part downward. The Earth s surface loses energy not only by Figure 10. Radiated Earth energy showing atmospheric regions. Note that the visible region is off the figure to the left. 16

6 THE EARTH S ATMOSPHERE radiating it away but also by conduction, convection, and evaporation. The atmosphere, including clouds, loses energy by radiation alone. Figure 12 shows that 70% of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed by, and heats, the Earth s atmosphere and clouds (25%), and surface (45%). The atmosphere also absorbs about 96% (100/104) of the energy that the Earth radiates. (The rest is lost to space.) The gases in the atmosphere responsible for this absorption such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and ozone are the so-called greenhouse gases. The greenhouse gases reradiate the long-wavelength radiation back to the Earth s surface and to space. They absorb radiation from the Sun and Earth and emit radiation to the Earth and space. From Figure 12, and defining the amount of energy from the Sun striking the top of the atmosphere as 100 units, we can get the following energy balances: Atmosphere and Clouds Energy Gained = = 154 units Energy Lost = = 154 units Net Energy = 0 Surface (Land and Oceans) Energy Gained = = 133 units Energy Lost = = 133 units Net Energy = 0 Space Energy Lost = =100 units Energy Gained = 100 units Net Energy = 0 Figure 11. Comparison of solar and Earth radiation. The solar curve is scaled to equal the Earth s curve at the peak. 17

7 THE SUN-EARTH SYSTEM The net energy is zero at each level the top of the atmosphere, inside the atmosphere, and at the Earth s surface. We can see immediately that the Earth is warmer due to the greenhouse gases in its atmosphere than it would be without them. It gains 133 units with the atmosphere present, only 90 units without it (assuming that if there were no atmosphere the Earth s surface would reflect 10% of the incident energy). The process is referred to as the greenhouse effect. One way of looking at the greenhouse effect is to think of the carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases as a one-way filter; their increase in the atmosphere only negligibly affects the amount of radiation reaching the Earth, but it significantly affects the amount leaving it. Now assume that all of the other components of the atmosphere remain at a fixed concentration, but that the amount of CO 2 increases due to, for example, continued burning of fossil fuels. This means that more of the Earth s radiation will be absorbed and reemitted back toward the surface, increasing the net amount of energy striking the Earth. This net increase in energy absorbed by the Earth will result in a temperature increase. Some greenhouse gases are much more effective in trapping the Earth s radiative energy than others. Figure 13 shows the way different atmospheric gases absorb radiation at different wavelengths. These atmospheric gases account for the overall absorption of radiation by the atmosphere. Although these gases (except for water vapor) are present in the atmosphere in only trace amounts (parts per billion to parts Figure 12. An illustration of how the atmosphere and clouds act to trap energy from the Earth s surface and reradiate most of it back to the Earth. This raises the surface temperature by about 33 K above what it would be without the atmosphere. From S.H. Schneider, The Changing Climate, Scientific American 261 (3), p. 72. Reprinted by permission. 18

9 THE SUN-EARTH SYSTEM of how and where the Earth s external energy is produced, the nature of this electromagnetic energy, and how it interacts with the Earth and its atmosphere to produce an environment that is, so far, relatively comfortable to the Earth s inhabitants. Figure 14. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air as measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory from 1958 to Units of concentration are parts per million by volume. From John Firor, The Changing Atmosphere: A Global Challenge. Yale University Press, Reprinted by permission. 20

10 THE EARTH S ATMOSPHERE Problems 1. Quantitatively, the wavelength dependence of Rayleigh scattering is 1/λ 4. How much more strongly is blue light (say, 400 nm) scattered by the atmosphere than red light (use 700 nm)? 2. What color would the sky be if the atmospheric scattering were the same average strength as at present, but not dependent on wavelength? Figure 15. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere at various times in the past as deduced from measurements of air trapped in ice cores ( ) and from direct measurements of air samples (after 1950). The concentration is plotted in parts per billion by volume. From John Firor, The Changing Atmosphere: A Global Challenge. Yale University Press, Reprinted by permission. 3. The energy level separation that produces the hydrogen red line at nm is 3.03 x joules. What is the difference in energies of the two levels of CO 2 that produces its absorption at 4,300 nm? 4. In what part of the spectrum does the CO 2 absorption in the above problem occur? 5. If the atmosphere did not absorb in the infrared, would the Earth s surface be warmer or cooler? 21

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