by J. Vinos, Feb 26, 2023
Most people don’t have a clear understanding of the greenhouse effect (GHE). It is not complicated to understand, but it is usually not well explained. It is often described as “heat-trapping,” but that is incorrect. Greenhouse gases (GHG) do not trap heat, even if more heat resides within the climate system due to their presence in the atmosphere. The truth is that after adjusting to a change in GHG levels, the planet still returns all the energy it receives from the Sun. Otherwise, it would continue warming indefinitely. So, there is no change in the energy returned. How do GHGs produce GHE?
GHGs cause the atmosphere to be more opaque to infrared radiation. As solar radiation heats mainly the ocean and land surface of the planet, GHGs absorb thermal emission from the surface at the lower troposphere and immediately pass that energy along to other molecules (typically N2 and O2) through collisions that occur much faster than the time it would take to re-emit the radiation. This warms the lower troposphere. The density and temperature decrease rapidly through the troposphere, so molecules are colder and more separated at the upper troposphere. Now GHGs have a chance to emit IR radiation so when they finally collide with another molecule, they are colder so GHGs have a cooling effect in the upper troposphere and stratosphere.
Because GHGs make the atmosphere more opaque to IR radiation, when they are present the emission to space from the planet normally does not take place from the surface (as happens in the Moon). Part of it still takes place from the surface through the atmospheric window, but most of it takes place from higher in the atmosphere. We can define a theoretical effective emission height as the average height at which the Earth’s outgoing longwave radiation (OLR) is being emitted. The temperature at which the Earth emits is the temperature at the effective emission height in the atmosphere. That temperature, when measured from space is 250 K (-23°C), not 255 which is the calculated temperature for a theoretical blackbody Earth. That temperature corresponds to a height of about 5 km, which we call the effective emission height.