A Saturated Gassy Argument

A guest post by Spencer Weart, in collaboration with Raymond T. Pierrehumbert

The simple physics explanations for the greenhouse effect that you find on the internet are often quite wrong. These well-meaning errors can promote confusion about whether humanity is truly causing global warming by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Some people have been arguing that simple physics shows there is already so much CO2 in the air that its effect on infrared radiation is "saturated"— meaning that adding more gas can make scarcely any difference in how much radiation gets through the atmosphere, since all the radiation is already blocked. And besides, isn’t water vapor already blocking all the infrared rays that CO2 ever would?

The arguments do sound good, so good that in fact they helped to suppress research on the greenhouse effect for half a century. In 1900, shortly after Svante Arrhenius published his pathbreaking argument that our use of fossil fuels will eventually warm the planet, another scientist, Knut Ångström, asked an assistant, Herr J. Koch, to do a simple experiment. He sent infrared radiation through a tube filled with carbon dioxide, containing somewhat less gas in total then would be found in a column of air reaching to the top of the atmosphere. That’s not much, since the concentration in air is only a few hundred parts per million. Herr Koch did his experiments in a 30cm long tube, though 250cm would have been closer to the right length to use to represent the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Herr Koch reported that when he cut the amount of gas in the tube by one-third, the amount of radiation that got through scarcely changed. The American meteorological community was alerted to Ångström’s result in a commentary appearing in the June, 1901 issue of Monthly Weather Review, which used the result to caution "geologists" against adhering to Arrhenius’ wild ideas.

Still more persuasive to scientists of the day was the fact that water vapor, which is far more abundant in the air than carbon dioxide, also intercepts infrared radiation. In the infrared spectrum, the main bands where each gas blocked radiation overlapped one another. How could adding CO2 affect radiation in bands of the spectrum that H2O (not to mention CO2 itself) already made opaque? As these ideas spread, even scientists who had been enthusiastic about Arrhenius’s work decided it was in error. Work on the question stagnated. If there was ever an “establishment” view about the greenhouse effect, it was confidence that the CO2 emitted by humans could not affect anything so grand as the Earth’s climate.

Nobody was interested in thinking about the matter deeply enough to notice the flaw in the argument. The scientists were looking at warming from ground level, so to speak, asking about the radiation that reaches and leaves the surface of the Earth. Like Ångström, they tended to treat the atmosphere overhead as a unit, as if it were a single sheet of glass. (Thus the “greenhouse” analogy.) But this is not how global warming actually works.

What happens to infrared radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface? As it moves up layer by layer through the atmosphere, some is stopped in each layer. To be specific: a molecule of carbon dioxide, water vapor or some other greenhouse gas absorbs a bit of energy from the radiation. The molecule may radiate the energy back out again in a random direction. Or it may transfer the energy into velocity in collisions with other air molecules, so that the layer of air where it sits gets warmer. The layer of air radiates some of the energy it has absorbed back toward the ground, and some upwards to higher layers. As you go higher, the atmosphere gets thinner and colder. Eventually the energy reaches a layer so thin that radiation can escape into space.

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