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Blog - a quantum of warmth (Rev #9, changes)

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

The Case of the Missing 33 Kelvin Continued

Last time, when we talked about putting earth into a box, we saw that a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation about the energy balance and the resulting average temperature of the earth is surprisingly close to the real world. But there is some gap, because the temperature predicted by a zero dimensional energy balance model is lower than the estimated average surface temperature on earth.

In such a situation, as theoretical physicsists, we congratulate ourselves on a successful first approximation, , and look out for the next most important effect that we need to include in our model.

Most of you will of course heard about the effect that climate scientists talk about, which is often - but confusingly - called “greenhouse effect”, or “back radiation”. The term that is most accurate is downward longwave radiation (DLR), however, so I would like to use that instead. But first we’ll have to peek into our simple model’s box and figure out what is going on in there in more detail.

Peeking into the Box and Splitting up: Surface and Atmosphere

To get a better approximation, instead of treating the whole earth as a black body, we’ll have to split up the system into earth itself, and its atmosphere. The solid surface of the earth consists of a lot of different materials with different radiation properties, so that it is still a good approximation to say that it is a black body.

The atmosphere is more complicated. In a next approximation step, I’d like to pretend that the atmosphere is a body of its own, hovering above the surface of the earth, as a separate system. So we will ignore that there are several different layers in the atmosphere doing different things, including interactions with the surface. Okay, we are not going to ignore the interaction with the surface completely, as you will see.

Since one can quickly get lost in details when discussing the atmosphere, I’m going to cheat and look up the overall average effects in a introductory meteorology textbook: It is

  • C.Donald Ahrens: Meteorology Today, 9th edition, Books/Cole 2009.

Here is what the atmosphere does to the incoming radiation from the sun:

incoming sun radiation in the atmosphere

The next graphic shows the most important processes of heat and mass transport, with their overall average effect:

energy balance of atmosphere

Tim van Beek : …something something… Where is convection? conduction? What is latent heat? Why is there more downward longwave radiation that incoming radiation from the sun?

Where is the Conduction?

Introductory classes for partial differential equations sometimes start with the one dimensional heat equation: This equation describes the temperature distribution of a rod of metal that is heated on one end. The kind of heat transfer ocurring here is called conduction. The atoms or molecules stay where they are and energy by interacting with their neighbours. Now, where is condcution in our graphic? The answer is: It is not there, because heat transfer by conduction is negligible for gases.

What is latent heat?

Latent heat is energy input that does not result in a temperature increase, or energy output that does not result of a temperature decrease. This can happen when there is a phase change of a component of the system: When fluid water at 0°C freezes, it turns into ice at 0°C while losing energy to its environment.

freezing forest with fog and ice

The picture above shows a forest landscape with water vapor, fluid and frozen water. As the sun sets, parts of the water vapor will eventually turn into ice, releasing energy to the environment.

A Quantum of Warmth from above

But the atmosphere consists of a couple of gases only, and we know from quantum mechanics that a gas consisting of, say, O 2O_2 molecules, or CO 2CO_2 molecules, has very different properties with regard to photon absorption and emission as a black body. In fact, this is one of the reasons for the invention of quantum mechanics in the first place.

Tim van Beek: I would like to relate to math from now and then, but would also like to warn those readers with less interest in mathematics, or with less background knowledge, that they may or should skip such sections. Any suggestions how to do this?

math technobabble:

If you are interested in operator theory, you’ll know the definition of the spectrum of an operator. If you haven’t looked into quantum mechanics, however, you’ll be surprised to hear that “spectrum of an operator” is actally related to the emission and absorption “spectrum” molecules: Simplifying somewhat, an eigenvalue of the Hamiltonian operator that describes a molecule corresponds to one line in the emission spectrum of a gas consisting of such molecules.

When a photon hits a molecule, the molecule can absorb the photon either by

  • an electron climbing the stairs to a higher energy level,

  • stronger vibration or

  • stronger rotation.

To get a first impression of the energy levels involved in these three processes, let’s have a look at this graphic:

molecular energy modes

This is taken from the book

  • Sune Svanberg: “Atomic and Molecular Spectroscopy”, Springer, 4th edition

Wikipedia has a funny animated picture with the different vibrational modes on the page IR spectroscopy.

Explaining the 33 K Gap: IR-Backradiation

Tim van Beek: The following is just a random collection of material right now!

Here is a nice overview of the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation:

radiation spectrum visualized

BTW, if you doubt that a colder black body can emit low energy photons that are then absorbed by a hotter black body, increasing its energy in the process, you may ponder the question how a microwave oven works.

From the Planck density, we can determine that sun and earth, as black bodies, emit at different wavelenghts:

Spectra of Sun and Earth

Only some components of the atmosphere emit and absorb radiation in the IR part, the part where earth’s spectrum is. These are called - somewhat misleading - “greenhouse gases”. Two prominent ones are H 2OH_2O and CO 2CO_2:

CO2 and H2O radiation spectra

The “atmospheric window” at 8 to 12μm is quite transparent, which means that this radiation passed from the surface to the atmosphere without much ado. Therefore, this window is used by satellites to estimate the surface temperature.

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

Devices to measure the infrared radiation of the planetary surface are called pyrgeometer, for pyr = fire and geo = earth.

Also have a look here.

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

From Zero to One Dimension

The zero dimensional model has a homogenous inbound energy flux and an averaged albedo. In the next step to refine our model, we could insert a dependency of both the radiation and the albedo of latitude. This results in a one dimensional energy balance model.

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