A simple recipe for GHE

According to some recent reports (e.g. PlanetArk; The Guardian), the public concern about global warming may be declining. It’s not clear whether this is actually true: a poll conducted by researchers at Stanford suggests otherwise. In any case, the science behind climate change has not changed (also see America’s Climate Choices), but there certainly remains a problem in communicating the science to the public.

This makes me think that perhaps a new simple mental picture of the situation is needed. We can look at climate models, and they tell us what we can expect, but it is also useful to have an idea of why increased greenhouse gas concentrations result in higher surface temperatures. The saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” has been attributed to Albert Einstein, which also makes me wonder if we – the scientists – need to reiterate the story of climate change in a different way.

Gavin has already discussed this (also see here and here), but it may be necessary to tell story over again, with a slightly different slant. So how can we explain how the greenhouse effect (GHE) work in both simple terms and with a new angle? I also want to explain why the middle atmosphere cools with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations associated with an increased GHE. Here I will try to present a conceptual and comprehensive picture of GHE, explaining both the warming in the lower part of the atmosphere as well as the cooling aloft, and where only the most central features are included. Also, it is important to provide a good background, and we need to start with some very fundamental facts.

Four main physical aspects

Several factors are involved, and hence it may be useful to write a simple recipe for the GHE. This recipe then involves four main ingredients: (i) the relationship between temperature and light, (ii) the planetary energy balance, (iii) the distance light travels before being absorbed, and (iv) the relationship between temperature and altitude.

(i) Temperature and light

Energy can be transmitted in many different ways, involving photons (light or electromangetic radiation), conduction, and motion. Most of these require a medium, such as a gas, fluid, or a solid, but space is basically a void through which photons represent virtually the only form for energy transfer. Hence, planets tend to gain or lose energy to space in the form of photons, and we often refer to the energy loss as ‘radiative heat loss’.

A fundamental law of physics, known as the Planck’s law, says that radiative heat loss from any object depends on its temperature. Planck’s law also explains the colour of the light, or its wavelength, and hence explains why iron gets red hot when heated sufficiently.

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