# The Earth's Energy Budget II -- Radiation Emitted by the Earth, the Greenhouse Effect, and the Overall Energy Balance

On the previous page we looked at the absorption of solar radiation by the Earth. This is the energy into the planet Earth. Because the average temperture of the Earth is nearly constant from year to year, using the principle of energy balance, we know that the radiation energy emitted by the Earth must equal the radiation energy absorbed from the Sun. Using the radiation laws, we could compute the average temperature for the planet Earth, which we called the radiative equilibrium temperature. As mentioned on the previous page, the radiative equilibrium temperature of the Earth is -15°C (0°F). This is actually the average temperature at which radiation is emitted from the Planet Earth. If there were no atmosphere (and no change in the amount of solar radiation energy absorbed by the planet), this would be the average temperature at the Earth's surface.

### The Greenhouse Effect

The radiative equilibrium temperature of the planet Earth (based on the amount of radiation energy that the planet emits to space) is quite a bit colder than the average temperature of the Earth's surface. The reason this is possible is because the atmosphere plays a large roll in the emission of infrared radiation out to space. In effect, it slows down the net rate at which the ground surface cools by radiation. This is known as the greenhouse effect. This WORD document describing the fundamentals of the greenhouse effect offers a simplified explanation for how it operates. You should take the time to open and study the WORD document before reading further.

Let's try to make a simple analogy that may help you understand how the atmospheric greenhouse effect results in a warmer surface. The simple analogy is keeping warm by covering yourself with blankets. Let's assume that the human body generates internal heat at a constant rate. (Of course this is not true because the body uses thermoregulation to maintain a near constant temperature). The internal heat generated will cause the surface temperature of your body to heat up to the point where the energy out equals the internal energy generated. This is like the concept of radiative equilibrium temperature for the Earth. Now suppose a blanket is placed over the body. This will slow down the net rate of heat loss from the surface of the body as some of the heat given off by the body will be absorbed by the blanket and returned to the body. As a result the surface temperature of the body will start to increase since the net rate of heat loss (at the body surface) is now less than the heat input or internal heat generation. The surface of the body will continue to warm until the net rate of heat loss again equals the rate of internal heat generation. However, this will be at a higher temperture than before the blanket was put on. So even though the energy input did not change, the surface temperature of the body became warmer because the blanket slowed down the net rate of heat loss from the body. Somewhere on the outside surface of the blanket the temperature would be such that radiative equilibrium is satisfied (energy lost by the system equals the energy input), but it is warmer underneath the blanket at the body surface. This is very much like having a greenhouse atmosphere. Greenhouse gases slow down the net rate at which the Earth's surface loses radiation energy, while still allowing the energy input (from the sun) to mainly heat the surface. So even with no change in the energy input from the sun, adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will make the surface warmer than if there were no greenhouse gases or greenhouse effect. Adding more greenhouse gases, i.e., strengthening the greenhose effect should make the Earth's surface warmer just like adding more blankets would act to make the surface of the body warmer. A big question, of course, is how much warmer will the surface of the Earth become as the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases?

Review basics of the greenhouse effect with a few details added:

• The atmosphere allows the majority of the Sun's radiation (visible radiation) to pass through to the surface where much of it is absorbed and goes into heating the surface.
• The atmosphere absorbs the majority of radiation emitted from the surface of the Earth (infrared radiation). This energy is not lost to space, so it does not cool the planet.
• Each type of gas molecule in the atmosphere interacts differently with radiation, however, in the atmosphere of Earth, when it is clear (not cloudy) it is mainly water vapor and carbon dioxide that determine the the strength of the greenhouse effect. These are the most important greenhouse gases. Keep in mind that water vapor and carbon dioxide are trace gases in the atmosphere of Earth. You should also realize that of the two dominant greenhouse gases on Earth, water vapor is by far the most important in the overall greenhouse effect.
• The most abundant gas molecules, nitrogen and oxygen, do not interact much with infrared radiation and are not greenhouse gases.
• Clouds absorb infrared photons very efficiently, and in essense contribute to the greenhouse effect. The cloud effect is a huge contributor to slowing down the net rate of infrared radiation loss from the surface of the Earth. This is very evident at night. If all other conditions are equal, cloudy nights are warmer than clear nights. Note. It is not entirely correct to say that clouds act in the same way as the greenhouse gases. Although the two have similar effects on the rate of cooling of the ground surface, clouds are not transparent to visible radiation from the sun, like the greenhouse gases.
• The infrared radiation energy absorbed by the greenhouse gases and clouds heats the atmosphere. The energy is shared by all gas molecules by conduction, i.e., collisions between the greenhouse gases and non-greenhouse gases.
• The atmosphere emits infrared radiation in all directions. The part of the radiation that is emitted downward is absorbed by the Earth's surface further warming it, that is, the Earth's surface receives radiation energy from both the Sun and the atmosphere, and therefore is warmer than if there were no atmosphere. Another way to think of it is that not all of the radiation energy emitted by the surface is lost to space. A good portion of that energy is absorbed by the atmosphere and then returned to the surface, slowing the overall rate of energy loss from the surface, thus keeping it warmer. The part of the radiation that is emitted upward goes off to space and cools the planet. However, since the gases in the atmosphere are at a colder temperature than the surface of the Earth, the radiating temperature of the planet is colder than the surface temperature. The amount of radiation energy that is emitted from the planet Earth to space is equal to what you would calculate for an object at a temperature of -18°C (0°F).
• Again it is only the greenhouse gases and clouds that are capable of emitting infrared radiation. (NOTE: gases (and cloud droplets) that absorb infrared radiation also emit infrared radiation. However, these are two separate processes. Once a photon is absorbed, the energy is transferred to the absorbing gas (or cloud droplet), and the photon no longer exists. The greenhouse gases share this energy with other gas molecules in the atmosphere through collisions. In a separate process, the greenhouse gases and clouds emit different infrared photons. It is important to realize that the emission by greenhouse gases and clouds in the atmosphere takes place at a temperature that is colder than the surface of the Earth.)

The precise details of the greenhouse effect are quite complicated. For example if we were to look more closely at how individual gas molecules interact with different types of radiation, it gets very complicated. The simplified explanation provided above is sufficient to understand the basic operation of the greenhouse effect.

### The greenhouse effect and global warming

You should understand that the natural greenhouse effect on Earth is not a bad thing. In fact it is necessary for life as we know it to exist. If there were no greenhouse effect, the temperature of the Earth's surface would be 0°F, and most water would be frozen. The concern with anthropogenic global warming is that of an enhanced greenhouse effect whereby the surface temperature of the Earth will increase above the present value of 59°F. One way this could happen is by increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is a fact that human activities are adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and that their concentrations in the atmosphere are increasing.

Let me try to simplify how additional greenhouse gases may act to warm the surface temperature:

• The Earth's surface (Land and Oceans) is constantly emitting (or giving off) infrared radiation. This process acts to cool the surface because energy is being removed from the surface when it emits radiation.
• The atmosphere (the greenhouse gases) absorbs some of this radiation energy from the surface and then returns a portion of it back to the Earth's surface when it (greenhouse gases) emits radiation downward, which gets absorbed by the surface.
• Therefore, the Earth's surface does not cool as rapidly as it would if there were no atmosphere because a portion of the radiation energy it emits is returned back to the surface.
• Adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere makes the atmosphere more opaque to infrared radiation, i.e., a larger fraction of the radiation energy emitted by the Earth's surface is absorbed by the atmosphere.
• Since the atmosphere absorbs a larger portion of the radiation energy emitted by the surface, it follows that it will also return more of this energy back to the surface of the Earth, further slowing the rate of surface cooling. Or in other words, warming the surface by strengthening the atmospheric greenhouse effect. We have come to call this effect anthropogenic global warming. Considering changes in radiation only, there is no doubt that an increase in greenhouse gases due to human activities will act to push the surface temperature upward. Theoretically, the surface will warm until the system returns to equilibrium and radiation energy into the Earth equals radiation energy out.
• The above sequence of events assumes that every other process in Earth's climate system does not change in response to the changes in the radiation forced by adding greenhouse gases. As we will see, because radiation is coupled to other processes, like weather patterns, cloud formation, etc., other processes will change. The overall effect of all of these coupled changes (on surface temperatures, rainfall, or whatever else) is very difficult to determine because the Earth's climate system is so complex and not fully understood.

### Clouds have a large influence both on solar radiation input and infrared radiation out and thus are extremely important regulators of Earth's climate

• Clouds absorb and emit infrared radiation like a solid surface, i.e., clouds are not selective absorbers/emitters of infrared radiation. Cloud bottoms emit a continuous spectrum of infrared radiation downward and cloud tops emit a continuous spectrum of infrared radiation upward. Because of this, clouds contribute to the greenhouse effect by emitting infrared radiation that warms the surface. This is very noticeable at night. If all other factors are equal, cloudy nights are warmer than clear nights.
• Clouds reflect much of the Sun's radiation back to space, which keeps the surface of the Earth cooler. This is very noticeable during the day. If all other factors are equal, cloudy days are cooler than sunny days.
• Thus, clouds have both strong cooling (mainly by reflecting visible radiation from the Sun) and strong warming (mainly by contributing to the greenhouse effect) effects on climate. Therefore, any changes in cloud amount or in the radiation properties of clouds will result in climate changes for the planet.
• It is very likely that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations will influence cloud formation and cloud properties. Cloud formation and cloud properties are not accurately simulated by climate models. Thus, predictions of how clouds may change after as greenhouse gases increase are highly uncertain, which is one reason why climate model predictions of future climate change are highly uncertain.

### Greenhouse effect on Venus

The greenhouse effect also occurs on other planets. Depending upon the composition of the atmosphere, the greenhouse effect can be quite strong. For example, lets look at Venus:

The Planet Venus

• Covered by thick clouds, the planet absorbs 22% of the incoming solar radiation energy and reflects 78% of the incoming solar energy.
• Even though it is closer to the Sun than the Earth, because of the high reflection of visible radiation from the sun, it actually absorbs less radiation energy from the Sun than the Earth does. The average temperature of the planet Venus (or its radiative equilibrium temperature) is -31°F.
• But because the atmosphere is very dense and largely composed of carbon dioxide, it has a strong greenhouse effect, and the average temperature of the surface is 860°F.
The example of Venus is meant to be an interesting comparison with the greenhouse effect on Earth. It is not meant to imply that the greenhouse effect on Earth will get as strong as on Venus due to human emissions of greenhouse gases.

## Completing the Energy Budget Diagrams for the Earth

Without some other types of energy exchange beside radiation between the Earth's surface and the atmosphere, we would expect that the Earth's surface would be warming (energy in > energy out) and the Earth's atmosphere would be cooling (energy out > energy in). This does not happen because there is a transfer of energy from the surface to atmosphere through latent heat (moist convection) and sensible heat (dry convection and conduction) transfers that balances energy in with energy out, so that both the surface and atmosphere remain at a nearly constant average temperature when averaged over yearly time periods (see figure below).

Summarizing the energy balances:

• The planet Earth is in approximate radiation balance since the average temperature changes little from year to year. (However, since the average temperature of the Earth has changed over its history, there is not absolute radiaton balance). When averaged over the entire surface of the Earth for an entire year, the energy in (absorbed radiation from the Sun = 70 units) is approximately equal to the energy out (radiation emitted out to space = 70 units).
• When averaged over the entire surface of the Earth for an entire year the Earth's surface is in approximate overall energy balance. Energy in (absorption of solar radiation plus absorption of radiation from the atmosphere = 135 units) equals energy out (emission of radiation plus latent heat flux plus sensible heat flux = 135 units).
• An interesting point here is that the Earth's surface actually receives more radiation energy from the atmosphere than from the Sun. How is this possible? It is because radiation from the atmosphere to the surface comes from all directions, 24 hours a day, while radiation from the sun to the surface only strikes half the Earth (day/night), and although it is quite intense where the sun shines directly down on the surface, it is much less intense during times when the sun is not directly overhead.
• When averaged over the entire atmosphere for an entire year, the Earth's atmosphere is in approximate energy balance. Energy in (absorption of radiation from the surface plus moist convection plus absorption of solar radiation plus dry convection and conduction = 149 units) equals energy out (emission of radiation = 149 units).

### A nice diagram from another source

 The Earth's annual and global mean energy balance. Of the incoming solar radiation, 49% (168 Wm-2) is absorbed by the surface. That heat is returned to the atmosphere as sensible heat, as evapotranspiration (latent heat) and as thermal infrared radiation. Most of this radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere, which in turn emits radiation both up and down. The radiation lost to space comes from cloud tops and atmospheric regions much colder than the surface. This causes a greenhouse effect.