Heat Transfer in the Atmosphere

Heat moves in the atmosphere the same way it moves through the solid Earth (Plate Tectonics chapter) or another medium. What follows is a review of the way heat flows and is transferred, but applied to the atmosphere. Radiation is the transfer of energy between two objects by electromagnetic waves. Heat radiates from the ground into the lower atmosphere.

In conduction, heat moves from areas of more heat to areas of less heat by direct contact. Warmer molecules vibrate rapidly and collide with other nearby molecules, transferring their energy. In the atmosphere, conduction is more effective at lower altitudes where air density is higher; transfers heat upward to where the molecules are spread further apart or transfers heat laterally from a warmer to a cooler spot, where the molecules are moving less vigorously.

Heat transfer by movement of heated materials is called convection. Heat that radiates from the ground initiates convection cells in the atmosphere.

Heat at Earth’s Surface

About half of the solar radiation that strikes the top of the atmosphere is filtered out before it reaches the ground. This energy can be absorbed by atmospheric gases, reflected by clouds, or scattered. Scattering occurs when a light wave strikes a particle and bounces off in some other direction.

About 3 percent of the energy that strikes the ground is reflected back into the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed by rocks, soil, and water and then radiated back into the air as heat. These infrared wavelengths can only be seen by infrared sensors.
Because solar energy continually enters Earth’s atmosphere and ground surface, is the planet getting hotter? The answer is no (although the next section contains an exception) because energy from Earth escapes into space through the top of the atmosphere. If the amount that exits is equal to the amount that comes in, then average global temperature stays the same. This means that the planet’s heat budget is in balance. What happens if more energy comes in than goes out? If more energy goes out than comes in?

To say that the Earth’s heat budget is balanced ignores an important point. The amount of incoming solar energy is different at different latitudes). Where do you think the most solar energy ends up and why? Where does the least solar energy end up and why?

The difference in solar energy received at different latitudes drives atmospheric circulation.

Day Length Sun Angle Solar Radiation Albedo
Equatorial Region Nearly same all year High High Low
Polar Regions Night 6 months Low Low High

The Greenhouse Effect

The exception to Earth’s temperature being in balance is caused by greenhouse gases. But first the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be explained. Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere by trapping heat. Some of the heat radiation out from the ground is trapped by greenhouse gases in the troposphere. Like a blanket on a sleeping person, greenhouse gases act as insulation for the planet. The warming of the atmosphere because of insulation by greenhouse gases is called the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases are the component of the atmosphere that moderate Earth’s temperatures.

This diagram shows the Earth's "greenhouse effect." The Earth absorbs some of the energy it receives from the sun and radiates the rest back toward space. However, certain gases in the atmosphere, called greenhouse gases, absorb some of the energy radiated from the Earth and trap it in the atmosphere. These gases essentially act as a blanket, making the Earth’s surface warmer than it otherwise would be. While this greenhouse effect occurs naturally, making life as we know it possible, human activities in the past century have substantially increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, causing the atmosphere to trap more heat and leading to changes in the Earth’s temperature. Summary of diagram: Energy from the sun arrives to the Earth as solar radiation. Some solar radiation is reflected by the Earth and the atmosphere. Most radiation is absorbed by the Earth's surface and warms it. Infrared (heat) radiation is emitted by the Earth's surface. Some of the infrared radiation passes through the atmosphere. Some is absorbed and re-emitted in all directions by greenhouse gas molecules. The effect of this is to warm the Earth's surface and the lower atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases include CO2, H2O, methane, O3, nitrous oxides (NO and NO2), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). All are a normal part of the atmosphere except CFCs. The table below shows how each greenhouse gas naturally enters the atmosphere.

Greenhouse Gas Where It Comes From
Carbon dioxide Respiration, volcanic eruptions, decomposition of plant material; burning of fossil fuels
Methane Decomposition of plant material under some conditions, biochemical reactions in stomachs
Nitrous oxide Produced by bacteria
Ozone Atmospheric processes
Chlorofluorocarbons Not naturally occurring; made by humans

Different greenhouse gases have different abilities to trap heat. For example, one methane molecule traps 23 times as much heat as one CO2 molecule. One CFC-12 molecule (a type of CFC) traps 10,600 times as much heat as one CO2. Still, CO2 is a very important greenhouse gas because it is much more abundant in the atmosphere.Human activity has significantly raised the levels of many of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Methane levels are about 2 1/2 times higher as a result of human activity. Carbon dioxide has increased more than 35 percent. CFCs have only recently existed.

What do you think happens as atmospheric greenhouse gas levels increase? More greenhouse gases trap more heat and warm the atmosphere. The increase or decrease of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere affect climate and weather the world over.