Monday, June 15, 2009

Earth Observatory Heating Imbalances and Earth’s Energy Budget

Monday, June 15, 2009
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Heating Imbalances

Three hundred forty watts per square meter of incoming solar power is a global average; solar illumination varies in space and time. The annual amount of incoming solar energy varies considerably from tropical latitudes to polar latitudes (described on page 2). At middle and high latitudes, it also varies considerably from season to season.

The peak energy received at different latitudes changes throughout the year. This graph shows how the solar energy received at local noon each day of the year changes with latitude. At the equator (gray line), the peak energy changes very little throughout the year. At high northern (blue lines) and southern (green) latitudes, the seasonal change is extreme. (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon.)

If the Earth’s axis of rotation were vertical with respect to the path of its orbit around the Sun, the size of the heating imbalance between equator and the poles would be the same year round, and the seasons we experience would not occur. Instead Earth’s axis is tilted off vertical by about 23 degrees. As the Earth orbits the Sun, the tilt causes one hemisphere and then the other to receive more direct sunlight and to have longer days.

The total energy received each day at the top of the atmosphere depends on latitude. The highest daily amounts of incoming energy (pale pink) occur at high latitudes in summer, when days are long, rather than at the equator. In winter, some polar latitudes receive no light at all (black). The Southern Hemisphere receives more energy during December (southern summer) than the Northern Hemisphere does in June (northern summer) because Earth’s orbit is not a perfect circle and Earth is slightly closer to the Sun during that part of its orbit.

In the “summer hemisphere,” the combination of more direct sunlight and longer days means the pole can receive more incoming sunlight than the tropics, but in the winter hemisphere, it gets none. Even though illumination increases at the poles in the summer, bright white snow and sea ice reflect a significant portion of the incoming light, reducing the potential solar heating.

The amount of sunlight the Earth absorbs depends on the reflectivness of the atmosphere and the ground surface. This satellite map shows the amount of solar radiation (watts per square meter) reflected during September 2008. Along the equator, clouds reflected a large proportion of sunlight, while the pale sands of the Sahara caused the high reflectivness in North Africa. Neither pole is receiving much incoming sunlight at this time of year, so they reflect little energy even though both are ice-covered. (NASA map by Robert Simmon, based on CERES data.)

The differences in reflectivness (albedo) and solar illumination at different latitudes lead to net heating imbalances throughout the Earth system. At any place on Earth, the net heating is the difference between the amount of incoming sunlight and the amount heat radiated by the Earth back to space (for more on this energy exchange see Page 4). In the tropics there is a net energy surplus because the amount of sunlight absorbed is larger than the amount of heat radiated. In the polar regions, however, there is an annual energy deficit because the amount of heat radiated to space is larger than the amount of absorbed sunlight.

This map of net radiation (incoming sunlight minus reflected light and outgoing heat) shows global energy imbalances in September 2008, the month of an equinox. Areas around the equator absorbed about 200 watts per square meter more on average (orange and red) than they reflected or radiated. Areas near the poles reflected and/or radiated about 200 more watts per square meter (green and blue) than they absorbed. Mid-latitudes were roughly in balance. (NASA map by Robert Simmon, based on CERES data.)

The net heating imbalance between the equator and poles drives an atmospheric and oceanic circulation that climate scientists describe as a “heat engine.” (In our everyday experience, we associate the word engine with automobiles, but to a scientist, an engine is any device or system that converts energy into motion.) The climate is an engine that uses heat energy to keep the atmosphere and ocean moving. Evaporation, convection, rainfall, winds, and ocean currents are all part of the Earth’s heat engine.

Earth’s Energy Budget

Note: Determining exact values for energy flows in the Earth system is an area of ongoing climate research. Different estimates exist, and all estimates have some uncertainty. Estimates come from satellite observations, ground-based observations, and numerical weather models. The numbers in this article rely most heavily on direct satellite observations of reflected sunlight and thermal infrared energy radiated by the atmosphere and the surface.

Earth’s heat engine does more than simply move heat from one part of the surface to another; it also moves heat from the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere back to space. This flow of incoming and outgoing energy is Earth’s energy budget. For Earth’s temperature to be stable over long periods of time, incoming energy and outgoing energy have to be equal. In other words, the energy budget at the top of the atmosphere must balance. This state of balance is called radiative equilibrium.

About 29 percent of the solar energy that arrives at the top of the atmosphere is reflected back to space by clouds, atmospheric particles, or bright ground surfaces like sea ice and snow. This energy plays no role in Earth’s climate system. About 23 percent of incoming solar energy is absorbed in the atmosphere by water vapor, dust, and ozone, and 48 percent passes through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the surface. Thus, about 71 percent of the total incoming solar energy is absorbed by the Earth system.

Of the 340 watts per square meter of solar energy that falls on the Earth, 29% is reflected back into space, primarily by clouds, but also by other bright surfaces and the atmosphere itself. About 23% of incoming energy is absorbed in the atmosphere by atmospheric gases, dust, and other particles. The remaining 48% is absorbed at the surface. (NASA illustration by Robert Simmon. Astronaut photograph ISS013-E-8948.)

When matter absorbs energy, the atoms and molecules that make up the material become excited; they move around more quickly. The increase

d movement raises the material’s temperature. If matter could only absorb energy, then the temperature of the Earth would be like the water level in a sink with no drain where the faucet runs continuously.

Temperature doesn’t infinitely rise, however, because atoms and molecules on Earth are not just absorbing sunlight, they are also radiating thermal infrared energy (heat). The amount of heat a surface radiates is proportional to the fourth power of its temperature. If temperature doubles, radiated energy increases by a factor of 16 (2 to the 4th power). If the temperature of the Earth rises, the planet rapidly emits an increasing amount of heat to space. This large increase in heat loss in response to a relatively smaller increase in temperature—referred to as radiative cooling—is the primary mechanism that prevents runaway heating on Earth.


Absorbed sunlight is balanced by heat radiated from Earth’s surface and atmosphere. This satellite map shows the distribution of thermal infrared radiation emitted by Earth in September 2008. Most heat escaped from areas just north and south of the equator, where the surface was warm, but there were few clouds. Along the equator, persistent clouds prevented heat from escaping. Likewise, the cold poles radiated little heat. (NASA map by Robert Simmon, based on CERES data.)

The atmosphere and the surface of the Earth together absorb 71 percent of incoming solar radiation, so together, they must radiate that much energy back to space for the planet’s average temperature to remain stable. However, the relative contribution of the atmosphere and the surface to each process (absorbing sunlight versus radiating heat) is asymmetric. The atmosphere absorbs 23 percent of incoming sunlight while the surface absorbs 48. The atmosphere radiates heat equivalent to 59 percent of incoming sunlight; the surface radiates only 12 percent. In other words, most solar heating happens at the surface, while most radiative cooling happens in the atmosphere. How does this reshuffling of energy between the surface and atmosphere happen?

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