The Azimuth Project
Blog - the color of night (Rev #11)

Or: how big is the "greenhouse effect" really?

This page is a blog article in progress, written by Tim van Beek.

When we talked about putting the Earth in a box, we saw that there is a gap of about 33 kelvin between the temperature of a black body in Earth’s orbit with an albedo of 0.3, and the estimated average surface temperature on Earth. An effect that explains this gap would need to

1) have a steady and continuous influence over thousands of years,

2) have a global impact,

3) be rather strong, because heating the planet Earth by 33 kelvin on the average needs a lot of energy.

Last time, in a quantum of warmth, we refined our zero dimensional energy balance model that treats the Earth as an ideal black body, and separated the system into a black body surface and a box containing the atmosphere.

With the help of quantum mechanics we saw that:

  • Earth emits mainly far infrared radiation, while the radiation from the sun is mostly in the near infrared, visible and ultraviolett range.

  • Only very special components of the atmosphere react to infrared radiation. Not the main components O 2O_2 and N 2N_2, but minor components with more than two atoms in a molecule, like H 2OH_2 O, O 3O_3 and CO 2CO_2. These gases react to infrared radiation: They absorb and re-emit a part of Earth’s emission back to the surface.

  • This downward longwave radiation (DLR) leads to an increased incoming energy flux from the viewpoint of the surface.

This is an effect that certainly matches points 1 and 2: It is both continuous and global. But how strong is it? What do we need to know in order to calculate it? And is it measurable?

Survival in a combat zone

There has been a lively - sometimes hostile - debate about the “greenhouse effect” which is the popular name for the increase of incoming energy flux caused by infrared active atmospheric components, so maybe you think that the heading above refers to that.

But I have different point in mind: Maybe you heard about guiding systems for missiles that chase “heat”? Do not worry if you have not. Knowlegeable people working for the armed forces of the USA know about this, and know that an important aspect of the design of aircrafts is to reduce infrared emission. Let’s see what they wrote about this back in 1982:

The engine hot metal and airframe surface emissions exhibit spectral IR continuum characteristics which are dependent on the temperature and emissivity-area of the radiating surface. These IR sources radiate in a relatively broad wavelength interval with a spectral shape in accordance with Planck’s Law (i.e., with a blackbody spectral shape). The surface- reflected IR radiation will also appear as a continuum based on the equivalent blackbody temperature of the incident radiation (e.g., the sun has a spectral shape characteristic of a 5527°C blackbody). Both the direct (specular) as well as the diffuse (Lambertian) reflected IR radiation components, which are a function of the surface texture and the relative orientation of the surface to the source, must be included. The remaining IR source, engine plume emission, is a composite primarily of C02 and H20 molecular emission spectra. The spectral strength and linewidth of these emissions are dependent on the temperature and concentration of the hot gaseous species in the plume which are a function of the aircraft altitude, flight speed, and power setting.

This is an excerpt from page 15 of

  • Military Handbook Survivability Enhancement, Aircraft Enhancement, Aircraft Conventional Weapon Threats, Design and Evaluation Guidlines, MIL-HDBK-268(AS), 5 August 1982

You may notice that the authors point out the difference of a continuous black body radiation and the molecular emission spectra of CO 2CO_2 and H 2OH_2 O. The reason for this, as mentioned last time in a quantum of warmth, is that according to quantum mechanics molecules can emit and absorb radiation at specific energies, i.e. wavelengths, only. For this reason it is possible to distinguish far infrared radiation that is emitted by the surface of the Earth (more or less continuous spectrum) from the radiation that is emitted by the atmosphere (more or less discrete spectrum).

Last time I told you that only certain molecules like CO 2CO_2 and H 2OH_2O are infrared active. The authors seem to agree with me. But why is that? Since last time we had some discussions about wether there is a simple explanation for this, I would like to try to provide one. When we try to understand the interaction of atoms and molecules with light, the most important concept that we need to understand it that of a electric dipole moment

Why is the dipole moment important?

Let us switch for a moment to classical electrostatic theory. If you place a negative electric point charge at the origin of our coordinate system and a positive point charge at the point x\vec{x}, I can tell you the electric dipole moment is a vector p\vec{p} and that:

p=x \vec{p} = \vec{x}

For a more general situation, let us assume that there is a charge density ρ\rho contained in some sphere SS around the origin, then I tell you that the electric dipole moment p\vec{p} is again a vector that can be calculated via

p=xρ(x)dx \vec{p} = \int \vec{x} \rho(\vec{x}) d \vec{x}

Okay, you say, so it is simple to calculate it, but what is its significance? Let’s say that we would like to know how a test charge flying by the sphere SS is influenced by the charge distribution in SS. If we assume that our charge density ρ\rho is constant in time, then all we need to calculate is the electric potential Φ\Phi. In spherical coordinates and far from the sphere SS, this potential will fall of like 1/r1/r or faster, so we may assume that there is a series expansion of the form

Φ(r,ϕ,θ)= n=1 f(ϕ,θ)1r n \Phi(r, \phi, \theta) = \sum_{n = 1}^{\infty} f(\phi, \theta) \frac{1}{r^n}

When our test charge is far away from the sphere SS, only the first few terms in this expansion will be important to it.

We still need to choose an orthonormal basis for the coordinates ϕ\phi and θ\theta, that is an orthonormal basis of functions on the sphere. If we choose the spherical harmonics Y lm(ϕ,θ)Y_{l m}(\phi, \theta), with proper normalization we get what is called the multipole expansion of the electric potential:

Φ(r,ϕ,θ)=14πϵ 0 l=0 m=l l4π2l+1q lmY lm(ϕ,θ)r l+1 \Phi(r, \phi, \theta) = \frac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} \sum_{l = 0}^{\infty} \sum_{m = -l}^{l} \frac{4 \pi}{2 l +1} q_{l m} \frac{Y_{l m}(\phi, \theta)}{r^{l+1}}

ϵ 0\epsilon_0 is the electric constant

The l=0l = 0 term is called the monopole term, it is proportional to the electric charge qq contained in the sphere SS. So the first term in the expansion tells us if a charge flying by SS will feel a net attractive or repulsive force.

The terms for l=1l = 1 form the vector p\vec{p}, the dipole moment. The next terms in the series Q ijQ_ij form the quadrupol tensor. So, for the expansion of the potential we get

Φ(r,ϕ,θ)=14πϵ 0(qr+pxr 3+12Q ijx ix jr 5+) \Phi(r, \phi, \theta) = \frac{1}{4 \pi \epsilon_0} (\frac{q}{r} + \frac{\vec{p} \cdot \vec{x}}{r^3} + \frac{1}{2} \sum Q_{ij} \frac{x_i x_j}{r^5} + \cdot \cdot \cdot)

For atoms and molecules the net charge qq is zero, so the next relevant term in the series expansion of their electric potential is the dipole moment. This is the reason why it is important to know if an atom or molecule has states with a nonzero dipole moment: Because this fact will in a certain sense dominate the interactions with other electromagnetic phenomena.

If you are interested in more information about multipole expansions in classical electrodynamics, you can find all sort of information in this classical textbook:

  • John David Jackson: Classical Electrodynamics (Wiley; 3 edition (August 10, 1998))

In quantum mechanics the position coordinate x\vec{x} is promoted to the position operator; as a consequence the dipole moment is promoted to an operator, too.

Molecular Emission Spectra or: Only Greenhouse Gases are infrared active? Really?

For atoms and molecules interacting with light, there are certain selection rules. A strict selection rule in quantum mechanics rules out certain state transitions that would violate a conservation law. But for atoms and molecules there are also heuristic selection rules that rule out state transitions that are far less likely than others. For state transitions induces by the interaction with light, a heuristic transition rule is

Transitions need to change the dipole moment by one.

This selection rule is heuristic: Transitions that change the dipole moment are far more likely than transitions that change the electric quadrupole moment only, for example. But: If an atom or molecule does not have any dipole transitions, then you will maybe still see spectral lines corresponding to quadrupol transitions. But they will be very weak.

So if you look close enough you will find that molecules that are not “greenhouse gases” can indeed emit infrared radiation, but the amount of radiation is insignificant compared to that of the greenhouse gases.

If you take a look at molecules consisting of two atoms of the same species like O 2O_2 and N 2N_2, you will find that such molecules can never have any states with a dipole moment at all, which means that more than 99% of all molecules in the atmosphere have an insignificant contribution to infrared radiation.

Tim van Beek: Heuristic explanation for the different energy levels? Electrons ultriviolett and visible, vibration infrared, rotation microwave.

Tim van Beek: Compare black body radiation to the emission spectrum of CO2 and H2O.

If you would like to learn more about molecules, I would recommend

  • Peter W. Atkins, Ronald S. Friedman (Author): “Molecular Quantum Mechanics”, Oxford University Press, USA; 5 edition (December 30, 2010)

as a start. And if you speak German and are interested in a very thorough and up to date treatment you could try

  • Ingolf V. Hertel, C.P. Schulz: “Atome, Moleküle und optische Physik 1: Atomphysik und Grundlagen der Spektroskopie”, Springer, Berlin, 1st edition (December 2007)


  • Ingolf V. Hertel, C.P. Schulz: “Atome, Moleküle und optische Physik 2: Moleküle und Photonen - Spektroskopie und Streuphysik”, Springer, Berlin, 1st Edition (May 2011)

Pressure, Temperature and all that

The next important point is addresses by the air force authors in this statement:

The spectral strength and linewidth of these emissions are dependent on the temperature and concentration of the hot gaseous species...

Of course the temperature, pressure and concentration of atmospheric components are not constant throughout the whole atmosphere, so this is a point that is also important for us when we investigate the radiation properties of the atmosphere.

But why is this important? The reason for this is that the emission spectrum of molecules depend on external influences like pressure and temperatures.

The most important mechanisms are:

Tim van Beek: List of line broadening mechanisms.

Calculating the DLR

Calculating the DLR on a sheet of paper, even with the use of a pocket calculator, would quickly turn out to be quite a task.

We could start by making some assumptions about the different layers of the atmosphere. We would also need to look up molecular spectra. Thankfully, for this task there is some help: The HITRAN database. HITRAN was founded by the US air force. Why? I don’t know, but I guess that they needed the data for air craft design, for example. Look out for the interview with Dr. Laurence Rothman for some background information about HITRAN; there is a link to it on the home page.

But anyway: We see that this taks is complicated enough to justify the effort to write computer code to handle it. But we are lucky: Not only have others dones this already for us. In fact you can find a survey of some of the existing software programs on Wikipedia:

A kind soul has provided a web interface to one of the most prominent software programs, MODTRAN, for us to play around with:

Now that we have some confidence in the theory behind DLR, we are ready to look into measurements.

Measuring DLR

To measure DLR and check that it is really the energy flux coming from infrared active components of the atmosphere and not some strange artefact, we have to

  • point some measurement device to the sky, to measure what goes down, not what goes up and

  • check that the spectrum we measure consists of the characteristic molecular spectra of CO 2CO_2, H 20H_20 etc.

The kind of measurement device we could use for this is called pyrgeometer, for pyr = fire and geo = earth.

For starters we should look for conditions where there is minimum radiation from other sources, no clouds and only a small amount of water vapor. What would be a good place and time on Earth to go to? A dedicated team of scientists decided to weather the grim conditions of the antarctic during polar night for this purpose:

  • Michael S. Town, P. Walden, Stephen G. Warren: Spectral and Broadband Longwave Downwelling Radiative Fluxes, Cloud Radiative Forcing, and Fractional Cloud Cover over the South Pole online here.

Tim van Beek:


  • Dan Lubin, David Cutchin, William Conant, Hartmut Grassl, Ulrich Schmid, Werner Biselli: Spectral Longwave Emission in the Tropics: FTIR Measurement at the Sea Surface and Comparison with Fast Radiation Codes, online here.


  • “Measurements of the radiative surface forcing of climate”, online here.

Tim van Beek: I would like to add radiation measurements, maybe some can be found here:


  • Baseline Surface Radiation Network (BSRN) here.

Just to have a number, the flux of DLR (downwards longwave radiation) is about 300 Wm 2W m^{-2}.

category: blog, climate