Daily Archives: March 9, 2008

Physics of the Greenhouse Effect Pt 1

Jean Baptise-Fourier is generally credited with the discovery of a greenhouse effect, which involves the process by which the presence of an atmosphere acts to raise the surface temperature of a planet. This was extremely simplified at the time, and the term greenhouse never appears in his 1827 writing, but he did establish the effect that the atmosphere had on incoming light and outgoing infrared (heat) radiation, and that some heat was absorbed by the atmosphere which was opaque in the infrared but transparent to incoming solar energy. A copy of his essay, translated by R.T. Pierrehumbert can be found here. We’ve made a lot of progress since then, as Svante Arrhenius began to quantify the phenomenon nearly 75 years later, the work of Stefan and Boltzmann established the relationship between an object’s temperature and its outgoing radiation, the role of convection and water vapor and clouds turn out to be important in more complex models developed later, etc. The pionerring paper by Arrhenius, entitled On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground, which is the famous 1896 piece, began to investigate what the effects of doubling the atmospheric CO2 content would be. At this time, most of the interest in the subject was in solving the mystery of the coming and going of ice ages. Like most pioneering efforts, Fourier or Arrhenius did not have the last word, and we still have much to learn today, but they provided a big leap in how we understand planetary temperatures and the role of the atmosphere in radiative balance. Fourier was one of the first to speculate that human activities could influence climate, and such topics are rather important in modern times.

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