First presented and discussed on the Internet June 2004,
updated December 2009|
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The leaders, and apparently virtually everyone else, are totally missing the CENTRAL PROBLEM aspect of the effect of burning fossil fuels. It is true that fossil fuels release some energy in the process of burning. But any "excess heat" which might have warmed the Earth's surface by a fraction of a degree, would have caused extra RADIATION TO SPACE (by the standard Stefan-Boltzmann equation). In other words, even if we could (briefly) "double total energy flow by duplicating the Sun's energy supply", the SURFACE of the Earth would get warmer and that excess heat would be radiated to outer space, and thereby dissipated rather quickly.
I had always seen the Physics as being really obvious, and I did not realize that virtually no one else fully understands it.
The main problem with burning fossil fuels is the ADDITION of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Look at this graph of the transmission / absorptance of carbon dioxide for various wavelengths of light. It is very transparent to UV and visible light (to the left in the graph), so the sun's energy easily comes through and in. But it is rather opaque to much of infrared light (to the right in the graph), which is what the Earth tries to radiate out to outer space. This results in the effect of "a stack of blankets" not allowing much of the Earth's heat to ever leave!
We have also added some arrows at the top of the graph, which require some explanation! Any object that is heated releases RADIATION to get rid of some of that heat. The wavelength of the radiation is dependent on the temperature of the source. Scientists including Planck, Wein, Stefan, and Boltzmann developed equations that describe those effects.
Since the Sun's surface is around 5760°K, the wavelength of the MEDIAN radiation in is around 0.709 micron, a reddish color. This is represented by the LONGER downward (orange) arrow. There is also a different wavelength which is the one that is most intense, which is at 0.503 micron (a greenish color), which is represented by the attached shorter arrow to the left in the graph.
Different parts of the Earth are at different temperatures, so they radiate at different wavelengths. We show the MEDIAN (13.2 microns) and peak (9.3 microns) wavelengths for the radiation from the hotter Equator regions (as red arrows), and also for the radiation from the colder Polar regions (16.1 microns and 12.4 microns) (as blue arrows).
It might be noted that SOME of the radiation from the Equator regions has a chance of escaping, as the absorbtivity of carbon dioxide is not quite as high for some of those frequencies. But the absorbtivity of carbon dioxide for the Polar regions is consistently near 100%. Many scientists seem mystified as to why the North Polar region is warming up several times faster than the rest of the planet. Part of the explanation seems pretty obvious when this differential absorption of carbon dioxide is considered.
Human efforts could never duplicate Venus' atmosphere, but we seem to be certainly trying! Once we manage to make our atmosphere "100% opaque to infrared radiation", as Venus' atmosphere essentially is, then, every day, incoming sunlight will simply add heat with none ever leaving. Even with no new fossil fuels burned then, the Earth's temperature will rise and rise and rise, just because it cannot get rid of what the Sun is sending in. For your information, the evidence is that we have managed to cause our atmosphere to already be around 85.4% opaque to attempted outgoing radiation that the Earth is trying to dump to outer space! And every additional cubic foot of new carbon dioxide we add to the atmosphere increases that infrared opacity!
The problem is that there is a strong likelihood that we have already passed that "tipping point", possibly in early 1997.
I realize now that essentially everyone has an entirely wrong understanding of this whole thing! They THINK that the coming "additional warming" will be due to "additional burning of fossil fuels", but that is NOT correct! The future "additional warming" will be due to the Sun's heat coming in! But then not being able to escape!
Any graph or chart that shows "heat produced by burning fossil fuels" is therefore essentially irrelevant, the effect is very tiny as compared to the Sun.
Leaders really believe that they are free to "keep burning fossil fuels until some specific future day", under the assumption that the future HEATING will be due to the heat from the fossil fuels themselves! They need to realize that the future heating will be virtually entirely due to the Sun's heat!
We can look at some numbers to confirm this. The radiation coming from the Sun, outside the atmosphere, is around 1353 Watts/meter2. About one third of that is immediately reflected away (called the Albedo), so about 893 Watts/meter2 actually enters the Earth's system. When multiplied by the presented area of the Earth, this is easily shown to be a total of around 113.74 * 1015 Watts. Multiply this by the number of hours in a year, and you get a total ANNUAL solar insolation to the Earth of nearly exactly 1018 KiloWatt-hours. In comparison, ALL the electricity consumed in the United States in the year 2003 was 3.857 * 1012 kWh (according to any Almanac for that year). Adding in the energy we use up from furnaces and vehicles, the total energy consumed in the US each year is roughly 3 * 1013 kWh. And if we add in the energy usage in the rest of the world, around a total of 5 * 1013 kWh. This is the TOTAL amount of energy that we humans are able to create in an entire year! Note that it is only around 1/20,000 of the amount of energy that the Sun provides us! Our statement that our human efforts, intentional or unintentional, cannot compete with the Sun, is established.
We really are pitifully small in our human efforts! For a long time, that fact was the basis for the ASSUMPTION that we could not possibly really foul anything up! But in recent decades, we have learned that by dumping garbage out in the oceans, we have contaminated nearly all oceans with extremely toxic chemicals, where whales and seals and many other animals are dying in large numbers. We have learned that we contaminated rivers with power plant heat dumping. We have learned that we have contaminated the atmosphere with CFCs which were destroying the ozone layer and endangering all life on Earth. And now we are (gradually) learning that we have been creating (invisible) "heat blankets" which we are stacking up in the atmosphere, which is beginning to not let the Earth dump excessive heat as it has always been able to do in its previous history.
I wonder WHEN leaders will eventually realize this error of their thinking. Of WHEN they might realize that our coming disasters due to Global Warming are due to PAST burning of fossil fuels! That even allowing ANY current or future burning of any fossil fuels, anywhere on Earth, is simply making more absolute that we have exterminated ourselves! This is REALLY sad for a scientist to deal with. The wish of wanting to try to help, but the recognition of being very alone in such desires, and that the coming consequences are dire beyond any possible comprehension.
There is an additional troubling complication to this subject. There are spokespeople who are claiming to be scientists and then making statements that are horrifically misleading to the public.
That theme has become amazingly universal! Even sources such as the Microsoft Encarta have articles which say "Methane is an even more effective insulator, trapping over 20 times more heat than does the same amount of carbon dioxide" (Global Warming, contributed by John Hart).
Spokespeople have made many statements that carbon dioxide is nearly irrelevant and it is actually methane gas that must be feared regarding global warming. They then say that Methane Hydrate is trapped under Polar ice, and that huge amounts of Methane gas will be released into the atmosphere when that ice melts in coming decades. Unfortunately, none of the listeners to such statements have any way to either confirm or deny the validity of the claims. But just look at the actual scientific facts! Where carbon dioxide is currently at a concentration of around 390 ppmv (parts per million by volume), methane gas is only around 2 ppmv. That is only about 1/200 as much. Now IF methane was astoundingly effective at blocking infrared radiation, maybe 2 ppmv should be feared! But look at the graph above which shows the absorbtivity spectrum of Methane gas. It does NOT have massive bands of infrared absorptance. Instead, the reality is that methane only has two, rather narrow peaks regarding infrared absorption. And they are not even at wavelengths which would absorb the radiation the Earth is trying to send outward!
By the scientific graph above, the claims of those spokespeople were entirely lies. However, their goal was greatly successful, where their lies convinced an immense number of people, including a lot of scientists, that we should be focused on methane and not on carbon dioxide. In this way, they have managed to continue to keep their green light regarding burning fossil fuels at astounding rates. But that was all based on blatant lies!
Either an atmospheric gas absorbs important colors of heat radiation or it does not, and laboratory research regarding that selective absorbtivity identified such effects. It is very puzzling that virtually all scientists and speakers attribute such characteristics to Methane gas, where the actual science is very obvious! So the daily repeated claims that Methane gas 'is twenty times worse a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide' appears to be absolutely complete fiction!
I am a Physicist, educated at the University of Chicago, and I have studied these matters for more than twenty years. These comments are NOT the ravings of a tree-hugger. This is brutally accurate actual facts and logic, to the standards that a Physicist demands.
The Physics of Global Warming A more comprehensive scientific presentation of these matters and more.
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