Lesson 5: Atmospheric absorption

So in Lesson 4, we learnt that if the Earth had no atmosphere, but still reflected about the same amount of sunlight as it does now, it would be at about -15 °C to -20 °C on average to be in “thermal equilibrium” where the energy coming in from the sun matched the energy coming out through the Earth’s own, thermal infrared, blackbody radiation.

Of course, we all know from our personal experience that the average temperature of the Earth (averaged over the whole Earth, whole day, whole year) is a lot hotter than that. So what is it that the atmosphere does?

To think about that, let’s start with a revision of Lesson 3 about light being absorbed and emitted by atoms. First, the “electromagnetic spectrum” is what I drew in lesson 1: it is the “rainbow” in the visible, and extends that to other wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. If you look at the visible spectrum (the rainbow) of the sun, you see black lines in the spectrum. These are known as Fraunhofer Lines after the scientist who first described them (see lesson 3b).

Light coming from inside the sun “excites” an atom in the outer parts of the sun, which means that an electron goes to a higher orbital. Then, when the atom returns to its lower state, it releases light with the same wavelength: but it does so in a random direction. So the amount of light heading towards us decreases at that wavelength and we see a black line in the solar spectrum.

In the Earth’s atmosphere the same thing happens – both on the way down and on the way up. Every atom has its own set of lines where it absorbs. But additionally, molecules can absorb lines too. In the atom case, the absorbed energy from the light is used to move a very light-weight electron up to another orbital inside the atom. With molecules, the absorbed energy from the light makes the molecules vibrate in new ways. Since in molecules the things moving are much heavier atoms (rather than very light electrons), all this happens with a lower frequency – and molecular absorptions are in the thermal infrared.

Incoming light from the Sun reaching the top of the atmosphere is in the UV, visible and near infrared spectral region. The UV is absorbed by atoms (and some molecules like ozone) this light gets re-emitted but in all directions, including out of the atmosphere, and is lost. That’s how our ozone layer protects us from harmful UV. Other visible wavelengths are absorbed by the atmosphere too – some Fraunhofer lines are due to atoms in the Sun, others are due to atoms in our atmosphere. This means that some wavelengths do not make it down to Earth.  But this absorption is only a few lines, and it doesn’t affect the overall amount of energy reaching the surface very much.

The Earth’s emitted radiation is in the thermal infrared. This longer wavelength (lower energy) light gets absorbed by molecules to make them vibrate in lots of ways.

Wikipedia has some great images of water molecules vibrating:

The yellow ball is the oxygen. The blue balls (which should really be much smaller than the yellow ball) are the hydrogen atoms (H2O!). Imagine you were holding a model of this with springs for the bonds and balls for the atoms. You can imagine that there are lots of ways for the molecule to vibrate and rotate. Each transition from one way of vibrating to any other way of vibrating requires just the right amount of energy supplied through light at “just the right wavelength”. So you can imagine there are lots and lots of thermal infrared wavelengths that get absorbed by all the water molecules in the atmosphere. And, while that light can also be re-emitted, that will be in any direction – including straight back down to Earth and into the path of another molecule.

[Actually, because the water molecules aren’t cold themselves, they are already doing some vibrations of their own – this actually leads to even more wavelengths being “just right” to create transitions between different vibrational modes.]

There are some difficult concepts in here, so I’ll stop and add give space for questions. 

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