Atmospheric Vitality Recycling – Watts Up With That?

Bob Wentworth Ph.D. (Utilized Physics)

Just lately, Stephen Wilde invited me to “have a go at deconstructing” the work he and Philip Mulholland have been doing to know how local weather capabilities. I used to be curious. So, I started taking a look at what Wilde and Mulholland (W&M) have written.

Immediately, I’d like to look at a constructing block idea which impacts their work, power recycling.

It’s a subject that results in seemingly infinite confusion amongst individuals who doubt that long-wave-absorbing gases can heat planets. So, this matter is prone to be of curiosity past its relevance to W&M’s work.

This inquiry was stimulated by studying W&M’s 2020 paper, An Evaluation of the Earth’s Vitality Funds. W&M’s evaluation is knowledgeable partly by the diagram under (my Determine 1, W&M Determine four, initially from Oklahoma Climatological Survey).

This determine illustrates how a layer of the Earth’s ambiance interacts with radiant power.

Photo voltaic short-wave radiation, with a imply radiant flux, Fₛ(1-A)/four, is absorbed by the Earth’s floor. The Earth’s floor, at an efficient radiative temperature, T₀, emits long-wave thermal radiation with a flux, σT₀⁴, in accordance with the Stephan-Boltzmann legislation. A fraction (1-f) of this surface-emitted long-wave radiation passes by way of the ambiance and reaches house, whereas a fraction f is absorbed by the ambiance.

A specific layer of the ambiance is assumed to be at a temperature, T₁. This temperature is the temperature that equalizes the flows of power getting into and leaving that layer. In keeping with the diagram, the layer will emit long-wave radiant power equally in all instructions, with a flux fσT₁⁴ being despatched upward and an equal flux being despatched downward.

It ought to be famous that this diagram is meant for basic schooling, and oversimplifies some particulars critical local weather modeler would bear in mind.  Particularly, I see the next simplifications:

  • The diagram depicts the full absorbed imply photo voltaic irradiance, Fₛ(1-A)/four, being absorbed by the Earth’s floor. Nonetheless, one thing like 27% of that’s truly absorbed into the ambiance (by way of clouds, water vapor, mud, and ozone).
  • The long-wave flux emitted by the Earth’s floor truly has the shape 𝜀₀σT₀⁴, the place 𝜀₀ is the imply emissivity of the floor, which has been measured to be zero.94.
  • How a lot long-wave radiation is emitted by a layer of the ambiance relies on the thickness of that layer. Saying the radiant flux is fσT₁⁴ displays a couple of implicit assumptions, particularly that (a) the layer has ample optical depth that it absorbs a lot of the incident radiative on the wavelengths of curiosity and (b) the temperature doesn’t range a lot throughout the layer. Critical modeling would contain formulation for the radiative properties of a skinny layer of ambiance, in addition to accounting for convection, and so forth.
  • The radiant flux emitted by an atmospheric layer is given as fσT₁⁴, however would extra precisely be given by 𝜀σT₁⁴ the place 𝜀 is the emissivity of the gasoline. It’s prone to be roughly true that 𝜀 ≈ f, however this will not be exactly the case. Moreover, the general emissivity of a gasoline relies upon considerably on temperature, so the radiated flux could not scale exactly as T₁⁴.

But, the aim of the diagram is public schooling, not rigorous modeling. For that objective, the diagram has its makes use of.

How do W&M apply this diagram? Partially, they accurately be aware (p. 56) that some “of all captured flux is returned to the floor as again radiation and recycled.” (Extra exactly, they assume that “half” of the flux captured by the ambiance is returned to the floor; that’s not fairly proper, however we’ll return up to now later.) In addition they be aware (p. 57) that “As a result of the intercepted power flux is being recycled this feed-back loop is… infinite …  It has the mathematical type of a geometrical sequence, and is a sum of the descending fractions…”

Let’s have a look at a diagram that illustrates the power recycling course of that W&M are speaking about.

On this diagram, daylight with energy S is absorbed by the floor of the Earth. (For simplicity in finding out the ideas, we’ll ignore the photo voltaic irradiation that’s instantly absorbed by the ambiance.)

As a result of the floor of the Earth is assumed to be neither gaining or dropping internet power (when averaged over a day or a yr), the quantity of energy absorbed by the floor should result in an equal quantity of power leaving the floor. The ability leaves the floor by way of a mix of thermal radiation and convective transport of latent warmth (water vapor) and wise warmth (sizzling air).

Suppose we assume that, for each unit of power flux that leaves the floor, a fraction (1-β) is radiated into house, and the remaining fraction, β, is returned to the floor by way of long-wave back-radiation. (In steady-state, on common, the power flux leaving the ambiance should equal the power flux getting into the ambiance. Therefore, any power flux that doesn’t attain house should be returned to the floor, for power flux stability to carry.)

For every power flux that reaches the floor, an equal power flux leaves the floor and enters the ambiance. A fraction (1-β) reaches house, and a fraction β is returned to the floor. The power flux returned to the floor should result in an equal flux leaving. This leads to one other cycle of some power reaching house, and a few being returned to the floor. In precept, this recycling continues without end, with ever smaller fluxes. As a result of every spherical of the cycle reduces the flux by a hard and fast proportion, the fluxes kind a geometrical sequence, making it simple to sum the infinite sequence. Computing these sums, one finds that the full energy radiated into house is S, the identical because the power flux absorbed by the Earth. That’s as one would count on.

One finds that the full back-radiated power flux, B, is given by B = β⋅S/(1-β).

Local weather fashions don’t often embrace a determine like Determine 2 above, through which every iteration of the power recycling course of is proven. Diagrams like Determine 2 are helpful for tutorial functions, however aren’t as sensible as different methods of depicting issues.

As an alternative, local weather fashions typically supply a diagram of whole power fluxes, just like the one under. This diagram reveals the web outcome, after all of the recycled power flows have been added collectively.

This diagram reveals photo voltaic flux, S, being absorbed by the floor. There may be additionally an power flux S/(1-β) leaving the floor (by way of thermal radiation and different warmth switch), and a back-radiation power flux B = β⋅S/(1-β) from the ambiance to the floor. The radiant power flux leaving the highest of the ambiance is S, equaling the quantity of photo voltaic irradiance that was absorbed by the Earth. The thickness of the strains qualitatively suggests the differing magnitudes of those power fluxes.

For Earth, the info in Kiehl and Trenberth (1997), which is used as a reference by W&M, point out a ratio of back-radiation to absorbed insolation, B/S = 1.38. This corresponds to a recycling fraction β = zero.58. (These calculations fake all absorbed photo voltaic irradiance is absorbed by the floor.)

Typically individuals are incredulous at the concept that the back-ration flux, B, is larger than the absorbed insolation, S. But, that is what’s measured to be true.

The power recirculation diagram, Determine 2, ought to clarify how this will and does occur, with out requiring that something “fishy” be happening.

It is likely to be reassuring to take a look at warmth stream, as an alternative of the standard power stability diagram (like Determine three above) which mixes warmth flows with radiant power flows. Recall that warmth stream is the web power stream, so warmth stream (in contrast to an power stream) is just in a single route. Translating Determine three into an equal warmth stream diagram yields the diagram under.

If one takes the mixed power flux away from the floor, S/(1-β), and subtracts the back-radiation flux, β⋅S/(1-β), one finds that the warmth flux from the floor to the ambiance is S, precisely the identical as the warmth flux absorbed from the Solar, and the warmth flux radiated into house.

There may be nothing opposite to power conservation occurring right here. All of it provides up.

To some individuals, it appears counter-intuitive to some that power recirculation can lead to recirculating power fluxes increased than the initiating absorbed power flux. However, this outcome, whereas maybe stunning, isn’t mistaken. The mathematics is sort of simple, as I feel I’ve proven.

* * *

After all, having back-radiation be higher than the absorbed insolation requires that the recycling fraction, β, be bigger than ½.

W&M assume that the biggest β can get is ½, through which case the back-radiation flux is B = S. They write (p. 55):

“The usual assumption is that for all power fluxes intercepted by the ambiance, half of the flux is directed upwards and misplaced to house, and half of all captured flux is returned to the floor as again radiation and recycled.”

It seems that W&M attain their conclusion that that is the “customary assumption” by analyzing Determine 1 (their Determine four), and noting that an atmospheric layer radiates an equal quantity upward and downward.

The conclusion that equal quantities are radiated upward and downward is appropriate—however just for a single layer of the ambiance.

The ambiance has a couple of layer. To think about the conduct of the ambiance as a complete, one wants to think about the mixture impact of many layers interacting with each other.

For example this, let’s have a look at a “toy mannequin” of the ambiance, consisting of N layers, every of which behaves just like the atmospheric layer in Determine 1.

Daylight with a median flux, S, is absorbed by the planetary floor.

The floor emits a complete flux of long-wave radiation, σT₀⁴. For simplicity, we assume a fraction (1-f) of this thermal radiation has wavelengths that move by way of the ambiance unhindered, whereas a fraction f is at wavelengths that are completely absorbed by every layer of the ambiance.

Every layer of the ambiance has a definite temperature, and radiates equally in each instructions, with a radiant flux fσT⁴.

For simplicity, I assume that solely radiative warmth switch is related. I assume that the radiant long-wave flux from house is negligible.

This mannequin isn’t a sensible illustration of Earth’s ambiance. However, fixing this drawback is prone to be informative, nonetheless.

Utilizing power stability, we are able to resolve for all of the temperatures. That is achieved simply utilizing a corresponding warmth stream diagram.

Right here’s how the calculation works. Be happy to skip these particulars. I denote the warmth flux from the floor to the ambiance, Q. As a result of the warmth flowing to and away from the floor should stability, we all know Q=S-(1-f)σT₀⁴. Vitality stability additionally tells us that the warmth flowing to and from every atmospheric layer matches, in order that Q flows between every layer, and out of the ultimate layer. Evaluating the quantity flowing out of the ultimate layer in Determine 5 and 6 permits us to unravel for the temperature of the final layer, Tₙ, when it comes to Q. That permits one to unravel for the temperature of every layer in flip, lastly yielding a method for T₀ when it comes to Q. Combining this with the earlier method for Q permits us to eradicate Q and resolve for T₀ when it comes to S and N.

The layers of the ambiance have T⁴ values that are spaced linearly between the worth for the floor, T₀⁴, and nil (the assumed worth for house). On this mannequin, the ambiance will get monotonically colder as one strikes to increased layers.

Different key outcomes embrace:

Q = S⋅f/[1+N(1-f)]

T₀⁴ = (S/σ)⋅(N+1)/[1+N(1-f)]

B/S = N⋅f/[1+N(1-f)]

Relating this mannequin to the prior energy-recycling mannequin, one finds that the power recycling fraction related to N atmospheric layers is:

β = N⋅f/(N+1)

For an environment that’s opaque to long-wave radiation (i.e., f=1), then a single layer (N=1) yields β=½ and B = S, as assumed by W&M. Nonetheless, on the whole, for an environment opaque to long-wave radiation, the power recycling fraction is β = N/(N+1) and back-radiation flux is B = N⋅S.

So long as an environment has a couple of layer, it’s totally doable for the recycling fraction to be higher than ½, and for the back-radiation flux to be arbitrarily giant, in comparison with the absorbed insolation.

How can we make intuitive sense of this outcome?

An environment as a complete isn’t at a single temperature.

In our “toy mannequin”, the highest layer is far colder than the underside layer. The radiant flux downward to the floor (the “again radiation”) is decided by the temperature of the underside layer. The radiant flux upward to house is decided by the temperature of the highest layer. Due to the temperature distinction between the highest and backside layers, it’s totally pure that the ambiance as a complete directs extra radiation downward to the floor than it does upwards to house.

* * *

Thus, what W&M interpreted as “the usual assumption” that “for all power fluxes intercepted by the ambiance, half of the flux is directed upwards and misplaced to house, and half of all captured flux is returned to the floor as again radiation and recycled” is fake.

It’s not “the usual assumption” with regard to the ambiance as a complete. It’s a false assumption for the ambiance as a complete, as demonstrated by our mannequin of a multi-layer ambiance.

The speculation that the ambiance as a complete behaves this fashion can be contradicted by measurements. These measurements present considerably extra flux being directed downwards to the floor than is directed upwards and misplaced to house (by an element of round 1.38).

* * *

Let’s use the outcomes of our modeling to suppose by way of a couple of points unrelated to W&M’s work.

Does the mannequin violate the Second Regulation of Thermodynamics?

For an environment opaque to long-wave radiation (f=1), my toy mannequin of a multi-layer ambiance predicts a floor temperature given by T₀⁴ = (S/σ)⋅(N+1). This has no higher restrict, because the variety of layers within the ambiance will increase.

It seems that the mannequin is predicting that, with a sufficiently thick long-wave-absorbing ambiance, a planet might obtain a floor temperature hotter than the Solar. That may be a violation of the Second Regulation of Thermodynamics. That may’t occur in actuality. So, what’s going on right here?

The answer could be very easy. If a planetary floor will get sufficiently sizzling, the floor will begin to emit an increasing number of of its thermal radiation as short-wave radiation. That short-wave radiation will move by way of the ambiance unhindered, identical to the incoming photo voltaic radiation did. So, as soon as a planet turns into sizzling sufficient to emit short-wave radiation, it could effectively cool its floor.

Because of this, a really thick long-wave absorbing ambiance can by no means heat a planetary floor to be as heat because the Solar.

* * *

The opposite imagined violation of the Second Regulation that some individuals fear about pertains to power flowing from a cooler warmth reservoir (the ambiance) to a hotter warmth reservoir (the floor of the planet).

However, the Second Regulation doesn’t say no power can stream from cooler to hotter. It merely requires that the warmth stream (i.e., the internet power stream), should be from hotter to cooler. As illustrated within the warmth stream illustrations (Determine four and Determine 6), even with power recirculation, warmth all the time flows from hotter to cooler.

There isn’t any violation of the Second Regulation.


One of many naïve arguments in opposition to the opportunity of rising CO₂ having an impact on local weather entails arguing that “CO₂ totally absorbs radiation after it travels a comparatively brief distance by way of the ambiance, so how might including extra CO₂ make any distinction?”

My toy mannequin provides some insights concerning this difficulty.

Within the mannequin, every layer is assumed to soak up 100% of the longwave radiation inside the fraction f of wavelengths which are absorbed. But, regardless of this, every added layer of ambiance will increase the floor temperature.

Whether or not or not the ambiance absorbs long-wave radiation many instances over is irrelevant to the potential of accelerating greenhouse gases to result in extra warming.

Nonetheless, there’s a completely different sort of “saturation” that does have a component of actuality.

The power recycling fraction in my multi-layer mannequin of the ambiance is given by β = N⋅f/(N+1). For big N, this change into roughly β ≈ f⋅(1 − 1/N). So, as the full variety of long-wave-opaque layers (or equivalently, the focus of greenhouse gases) will increase, further layers do have smaller and smaller impacts on the power recycling fraction.

That is vaguely just like the assertion that the affect of accelerating CO₂ ranges is logarithmic, in order that it is advisable to preserve doubling CO₂ ranges to get comparable modifications.

However, the mathematical kind for this “saturation” impact isn’t fairly the identical. The place does our toy mannequin go mistaken?

The toy multi-layer mannequin assumes that varied wavelengths of long-wave radiation are both 100% transmitted or 100% absorbed. But, for actual gases, there’s a continuum in to the diploma to which varied wavelengths are absorbed.

One mind-set about it’s that the variety of “opaque layers” within the ambiance varies with wavelength. So, even when rising gasoline concentrations has little affect on one wavelength, it might need a major affect at one other wavelength.

One other mind-set about it’s that, as you enhance the focus of long-wave absorbing gases, you successfully enhance f, the fraction of wavelengths for which outbound long-wave radiation might be absorbed.

So, it is sensible that as you enhance the focus of long-wave-absorbing gases, the affect of further will increase declines, however in precept, there’ll nonetheless be an affect.

What number of “layers” does Earth’s ambiance have?

I calculated how an environment with solely radiative heat-transfer may have an effect on floor temperature, as a operate of what number of “layers” the ambiance has.

However, how can we determine what number of layers there are in an environment, for functions of making use of this mannequin?

Recall that, in discussing Determine 1, I stated that the formulation concerned require one to imagine that (a) the layer has ample optical depth that it absorbs a lot of the incident radiative on the wavelengths of curiosity and (b) the temperature doesn’t range a lot throughout the layer.

It is a tough mannequin, and there’s no laborious primary what constitutes absorbing “most” of incident radiation. However, an optical depth 2 would take in 86% of incident radiation, so perhaps that will be the minimal optical depth we’d wish to affiliate with a layer?

For radiation with a wavelength of 15 microns, the place CO₂ absorption peaks, the optical depth of Earth’s ambiance could also be round 100. So, which may recommend the usage of as many as 50 layers in our toy mannequin. However, at a wavelength of 14 or 16 microns, the optical depth is round 10, akin to not more than 5 layers. (Nonetheless, when you divided the ambiance into solely 5 layers, the belief that temperature doesn’t range a lot throughout a layer could be unlikely to be legitimate.)

Basically, optical depth varies strongly with wavelength. And, for a lot of wavelengths, atmospheric temperature will be anticipated to range over the distances wanted for full absorption of these wavelengths.

The underside line is that the toy mannequin can’t be anticipated to mannequin the conduct of the actual ambiance. (Let’s not overlook that the toy mannequin omits convection, which makes it much more possible that it might quantitatively describe the actual ambiance.)

Actual local weather fashions make use among the concepts I’ve included within the toy mannequin, however they fill in an infinite variety of particulars that I’ve overlooked. 


How issues play out in an actual ambiance is, in fact, vastly extra difficult than can described quantitatively by fashions so simple as a what I’ve supplied right here.

But, a easy mannequin like what I’ve shared right here will help illustrate basic mechanisms, and make clear some in any other case mystifying phenomenon. These easy fashions clarify issues like how back-radiation fluxes will be bigger than the absorbed photo voltaic flux, and the way extra atmospheric radiation can attain the floor than reaches house.

I hope this has been useful.

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