In Part One we took a look at what data was available for “back radiation”, better known as Downward Longwave Radiation, or DLR.
The fact that the data is expensive to obtain doesn’t mean that there is any doubt that downward longwave radiation exists and is significant. It’s no more in question than the salinity of the ocean.
There appear to be three difficulties in many people’s understanding of DLR:
- It doesn’t exist
- It’s not caused by the inappropriately-named “greenhouse” gases
- It can’t have any effect on the temperature of the earth’s surface
There appear to be many tens of variants of arguments around these three categories and it’s impossible to cover them all.
What’s better is try and explain why each category of argument is in error.
Part One covered the fact that DLR exists and is significant. What we will look at in this article is what causes it. Remember that we can measure this DLR at night, and the definition of DLR is that it is radiation > 4μm.
99% of solar radiation is <4μm – see The Sun and Max Planck Agree. Solar and longwave radiation are of a similar magnitude (at the top of atmosphere) therefore when we measure radiation with a wavelength > 4μm we know that it is radiated from the surface or from the atmosphere.
Notice that the night-time radiation (midnight local time = 6am UTC) is not a lot lower than the peak daytime radiation. The atmosphere cools down slower than the surface of the land (but faster than the ocean).
This by itself should demonstrate that what we are measuring is from the atmosphere, not solar radiation – otherwise the night-time radiation would drop to zero.
More DLR measurements from Alice Springs, Australia. Latitude: -23.798000, Longitude: 133.888000. BSRN station no. 1; Surface type: grass; Topography type: flat, rural.
Summer measurements over 4 days:
Winter measurements over 4 days:
This radiation is not solar and can only be radiation emitted from the atmosphere.
Properties of Gases – Absorption and Emission
As we can see from the various measurements in Part One, and the measurements here, the amount of radiation from the atmosphere is substantial – generally in the order of 300W/m2 both night and day. What causes it?
If measurements of longwave radiation at the surface are hard to come by, spectral measurements are even more sparse, again due to the expense of a piece of equipment like an FT-IT (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscope).
You can see some more background about absorption and emission in CO2 – An Insignificant Trace Gas? - Part Two.
A quick summary of some basics here – each gas in the atmosphere has properties of absorption and emission of electromagnetic radiation – and each gas is different. These are properties which have been thoroughly studied in the lab, and in the atmosphere. When a photon interacts with a gas molecule it will be absorbed only if the amount of energy in the photon is a specific amount – the right quantum of energy to change the state of that molecule – to make it vibrate or rotate, or a combination of these.
The amount of energy in a photon is dependent on its wavelength.
This post won’t be about quantum mechanics so we’ll leave the explanation of why all this absorption happens in such different ways for N2 vs water vapor (for example) and concentrate on a few simple measurements.
The only other important point to make is that if a gas can absorb at that wavelength, it can also emit at that wavelength – and conversely if a gas can’t absorb at a particular wavelength, it can’t emit at that wavelength.
Here are some absorption properties of different gases in the atmosphere:
And for those not used to this kind of graph, the vertical axis is on a logarithmic scale. This means that each horizontal line is a factor of 10.
So if we take the example of oxygen (O2) at 6-7μm the absorption is a factor of 1,000,000,000 times (1 billion times) lower than water vapor at those wavelengths.
Water vapor – as you can see above – absorbs across a very wide range of wavelengths. But if we take a look at CO2 and water vapor in a small region centered around 15μm we can see how different the absorption is:
We know the absorption properties of each gas at each wavelength and therefore we also know the emission properties of each gas at each wavelength.
So when we measure the spectrum of a radiating body we can calculate the energy in each part of the spectrum and calculate how much energy is coming from each gas. There is nothing at all controversial in this – not in physics anyway.
Measured Spectra of Downward Longwave Radiation
Now we know how to assess the energy radiated from each gas we just need some spectral plots of DLR.
Remember in Part One I commented about one of the papers:
Their paper isn’t about establishing whether or not atmospheric radiation exists. No one in the field doubts it, any more than anyone doubts the existence of ocean salinity. This paper is about establishing a better model for calculating DLR – as expensive instruments are not going to cover the globe any time soon.
If we want to know the total DLR and spectral DLR at every point over the globe there is no practical alternative to using models. So what these papers are almost always about is a model to calculate total DLR – or the spectrum of DLR – based on the atmospheric properties at the time. The calculated values are compared with the measurements to find out how good the models are – and that is the substance of most of the papers.
By the way, when we talk about models – this isn’t “predicting the future climate in the next decade using a GCM” model, this is simply doing a calculation – albeit a very computationally expensive calculation – from measured parameters to calculate other related parameters that are more difficult to measure. The same way someone might calculate the amount of stress in a bridge during summer and winter from a computer model. Well, I digress..
What DLR spectral measurements do we have? All from papers assessing models vs measurements..
One place that researchers have tested models is Antarctica. This is because by finding the driest place on earth, it eliminates the difficulties involved in the absorption spectrum of water vapor and the problems of knowing exactly how much water vapor is in the atmosphere at the time the spectral measurements were taken. This helps test the models = solving the radiative transfer equations. In this first example, from Walden (1998), we can see that the measurements and calculations are very close:
Note that in this field we usually see plots against wavenumber in cm-1 rather than a plot against wavelength in μm. I’ve added wavelength to each plot to make it easier to read.
I’ll comment on the units at the end, because unit conversion is very dull – however, some commenters on this blog have been confused by how to convert radiance (W/m2.sr.cm-1) into flux (W/m2). For now, note that the total DLR value measured at the time the spectrum was taken was 76 W/m2.
We can see that the source of this DLR was CO2, ozone, methane, water vapor and nitrous oxide. Oxygen and nitrogen emit radiation a billion times lower intensity at their peak.
The proportion of DLR from CO2 is much higher than we would see in the tropics, simply because of the lack of water vapor in Antarctica.
Here is a spectrum measured in Wisconsin from Ellingson & Wiscombe (1996):
We see a similar signal to Antarctica with a higher water vapor signal. Notice, as just one point of interest, that the CO2 value is of a higher magnitude than in Antarctica – this is because the atmospheric temperature is higher in Wisconsin than in Antarctica. This paper didn’t record the total flux.
From Evans & Puckrin (2006) in Canada:
By now, a familiar spectrum, note the units are different.
And a comparison with summer with more water vapor.
From Lubin et al (1995) – radiation spectrum from the Pacific:
Some alternative theories have been proposed from outside of the science community:
- DLR is “reflected surface radiation” by the atmosphere via Rayleigh scattering
- DLR is just poor measurement technology catching the upward surface radiation
A very quick summary on the two “ideas” above.
Rayleigh scattering is proportional to λ-4, where λ is the wavelength. That’s not easy to visualize – but in any case Rayleigh scattering is not significant for longwave radiation. However, to give some perspective, here are the relative effects of Rayleigh scattering vs wavelength:
So if this mechanism was causing DLR we would measure a much higher value for lower wavelengths (higher wavenumbers). Just for easy comparison with the FTIR measurements above, the above graph is converted to wavenumber to orientate it in the same direction:
Compare that with the measured spectra above.
What about upward surface radiation being captured without the measurement people realizing (measurement error)?
If that was the case the measured spectrum would follow the Planck function quite closely, e.g.:
(Once again you need to mentally reverse the horizontal axis to have the same orientation as the FTIR measurements).
As we have seen, the spectra of DLR show the absorption/emission spectra of water vapor, CO2, CH4, O3 and NO2. They don’t match Rayleigh scattering and they don’t match surface emission.
The inescapable conclusion is that DLR is from the atmosphere. And for anyone with a passing acquaintance with radiation theory, this is to be expected.
If the atmosphere did not radiate at the spectral lines of water vapor, CO2, CH4 and O3 then radiation theory would need to be drastically revised. The amount of radiation depends on the temperature of the atmosphere as well as the concentration of radiative gases, so if the radiation was zero – a whole new theory would be needed.
Why does the atmosphere radiate? Because it is heated up via convection from the surface, solar radiation and surface radiation. The atmosphere radiates according to its temperature, in accordance with Planck’s law and at wavelengths where gas molecules are able to radiate.
There isn’t any serious theory that the atmosphere doesn’t emit radiation. If the atmosphere is above absolute zero and contains gases that can absorb and emit longwave radiation (like water vapor and CO2) then it must radiate.
And although the proof is easy to see, no doubt there will be many “alternative” explanations proposed..
Update – Part Three now published
Measurements of the downward longwave radiation spectrum over the Antarctic plateau and comparisons with a line-by-line radiative transfer model for clear skies, Walden et al, Journal of Geophysical Research (1998)
The spectral radiance experiment (SPECTRE): Project Description and Sample Results, Ellingson & Wiscombe, Bulletin of the AMU (1996)
Measurements of the radiative surface forcing of climate, Evans & Puckrin, 18th Conference on Climate Variability and Change, (2006)
Spectral Longwave Emission in the Tropics, Lubin et al, Journal of Climate (2005)