A simple recipe for GHE

Figure 1. Illustration of Planck's law, where the different curves represent objects with different temperature. The y-axis is marks the intensity and the x-axis the wave length (colour) of the light emitted by bodies with a given temperature (PDF-version and R-script generating the figure.)

Planck’s law predicts that the light from an object with a temperature of 6000K – such as the solar surface – produces light that is visible, whereas objects with a temperature of 288K produce light with a wavelength that our eyes are not able to see (infra red). This is illustrated in Figure 1 showing how the light intensity (y-axis; also referred to as ‘flux density‘) and the colour of the light (wave length) vary for objects with different temperatures (here represented by different curves). The yellow curve in the figure represents the solar surface and the light blue curve the earth.

(ii) The planetary energy balance

The planetary energy balance says that our planet loses heat at the same rate as it receives energy from the sun (otherwise it would heat or cool over time). This is because energy cannot just be created or destroyed (unless it involves nuclear reactions or takes place on quantum physics scales).

The planets’ distance from the sun and the brightness of its surface dictates how much energy it receives from the sun, as the light gets dimmer when it spreads out in space, as described by Gauss’ theorem.

Figure 2. A schematic of the solar system, where the energy received by the earth is the sunlight intercepted by its cross-section, and where the heat loss on average is due to thermal emission from the whole surface area of the planet. As the sunlight travels away from the sun, it spreads out over larger space and gets dimmer.

The energy flowing from the sun is intercepted by the earth with energy density described by the ‘solar constant‘ (S0=1366W/m2), and the amount of energy intercepted is the product between this flux density and the earth’s disc (minus the reflected light due to the planet’s albedo: A ~0.3). The average heat loss is given by the product of earth’s surface and its black body radiation:

S0/4 (1-A) = σT4,

where σ=5.67 x 10-8W/(m2 K4) is the Stefan-Boltzman constant. This gives a value of 255K, known as the emission temperature.

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