On the Energy Highway with David A. “All watts are not created equal.”

I was quite taken with comments by David A. on my water wheel post, and am posting the discussion here in case others are interested.

Note: This is not a climateball playing field, so ideas and facts are welcome, but not disparaging remarks. Comments containing the latter will be deleted.

On April 24, David A. Said:

Good Article IMV.
“The energy represented by a solar photon spends an average 43 hours in the Earth system before it is lost to space. Some spend just a millisecond while a very, very tiny percentage might get absorbed in the deep ocean and spend a thousand years on Earth or longer.”
A Law if you will; “Only two things can affect the energy content of a system in a radiative balance, either a change in the input, or a change in the residence time of some aspect of the energy within the system.”

In ALL cases not involving disparate solar insolation changes, the residence time of the energy must be understood in order to quantify the warming or cooling degree. For instance, clouds are capable of both increasing the residence time of some LWIR radiation from the surface, and decreasing the residence time of SW insolation from the Sun. The net affect is dependent on both the amount of energy affected, and the residence time of the energy affected, which is dependent on both the WL of the energy, and the materials said energy encounters.

I would like to clarify my residence time with a traffic analogy. Numbers are simplified to a ten basis, for ease of math and communication. Picture the earths system (Land, ocean and atmosphere) as a one lane highway. Ten cars per hour enter, (TSI) and ten cars per hour exit (representing radiation to space.) The cars (representing one watt per square meter) are on the highway for one hour. So there are ten cars on the highway. (the earth’s energy budget)
Now let us say the ten cars instantly slow to a ten hour travel time. Over a ten hour period, the energy budget will increase from ten cars, to 100 cars, with no change of input. Let us say we move to a one hundred hour travel time. Then there will be, over a one hundred hour time period, an increase of 990 cars.

Of course the real earth has thousands of lanes traveling at different speeds, and via conduction, convection, radiation, evaporation, condensing, albedo changes, GHGs, etc, etc, trillions of cars constantly changing lanes, with some on the highway for fractions of a second, and some for centuries. Also The sun changes WL over its polarity cycles far more then it changes total TSI. Additionally the sun can apparently enter phases of more active, or less active cycles which last for many decades.

Some factors increase residence time in the atmosphere (GHG) but may reduce energy entering a long term residence like the oceans. For Instance, W/V clear sky conditions, greatly reduces surface insolation at disparate W/L. Such thoughts caused me to question the disparate contributions to earth’s total energy budget of SWR verses LWIR.
Such thought are cause for me to question the total amount of geothermal heat within the oceans, as many of these cars are on a very slow, century’s long lane.

It is true that 100 watts per sq. M of SWR, has the same energy as 100 watts per sq. M of LWIR, however their affect on earth’s energy balance can be dramatically different. In this sense, not all watts are equal.

For instance lets us say 100 watts of LWIR back radiation strikes the ocean surface. That energy then accelerates evaporation where said energy is lifted to altitude, and then condenses, liberating some of that energy to radiate to space. Now lets us assume the same 100 watts per sq M strikes the ocean, but this time it is composed of SWR, penetrating up to 800 ‘ deep. Some of that energy may stay with in the ocean for 800 years. The SWR has far more long term energy, and even warming potential then the LWIR.

Now, let us say the sun enters a multi-decadal increased active phase, and the SWR W/L which deeply penetrates the ocean surface is .1 Watt per sq meter higher then previously. his .01 watt increase, due to the very long residence time, now accumulates in the ocean for the entire multi decadal solar increase.

The oceans are a three dimensional SW selective surface, and should never be treated like a simple blackbody.

Ron C. replied:

David, thanks a lot for your comment. I take it that your traffic analogy refers to the flow of energy from the surface through the atmosphere to space. And in that case, the sun is like an assembly plant where cars are rolling into our system at a (mostly) constant rate. When the traffic jams, the additional cars continue to fill the road because they are impeded from turning off into space. An interesting point is the role of the oceans as a kind of parking lot with a variable release of cars onto the road, and thus acts as a buffer between the factory and the traffic flow.
I want to think next about the mechanisms at the interface between oceans and air.

On April 24 David A. said:

Thank you Ron. To clarify, The highway is the earth’s system, defined as the “oceans, land, and atmosphere”, the on ramp is Total Solar Insolation, and the off ramp is radiation to space. So in this context albedo radiation is a Lamborghini, and the ocean is gridlock (or parking lot as you said) on the highway. Yes, the ocean is the dog, and the atmosphere is the tail, and a snubbed one at that.

A practical example is seen annually. in the SH summer, the earth receives about 7 percent more insolation, (a massive increase in input, close to 90 watts per sq. meter.) yet the atmosphere cools! Is the earth gaining or losing energy in the SH summer? There is certainly reduced residence time in the NH, due to increased albedo of snow on the land mass heavy N.H, and increased residence time in the SH, due to amplified SW ocean penetration. Both factors however remove energy from the atmosphere; the NH through reflecting energy to space, and the SH via absorbing the energy into the oceans, away from the atmosphere for much longer periods. So, despite a massive increase in insolation, the atmosphere cools, but does the earth gain or lose energy? I am guessing that it gains energy, unless SH cloud cover greatly expands, but I have never seen this quantified.

All non-input change theories on climate are a manifestation of the affect of “residence time.” I have found this useful in talking to “Slayers” I tell them the GHE is based on increasing the residence time of certain WL of LWIR energy via redirecting exiting LWIR energy back into the system, while input remains constant, thus more total energy is within the system. The greater the increase in residence time of the energy, the greater the potential energy accumulation.

In “slayers” defense I will say that some of the energy in the atmosphere is the result of conduction, and if conducted energy manifesting as heat strikes a GHG molecule, and is causative to that GHG molecule sending that energy to space, then said GHG molecule is cooling, as otherwise the conducted energy would have stayed within the atmosphere if it had simply conducted to another non GHG molecule. I have been unsuccessful in getting anyone to quantify how often this happens. In the lower atmosphere collision, or conduction transfers dominate and GHG molecule function pretty much the same as non GHG molecules, transferring energy via collision more rapidly then via radiation.

In this sense I maintain not all watts are equal. In a past WUWT post Willis asserted that the LWIR re-striking the surface, via back radiation, was equal to the SW striking the surface, sans the clouds presence. I maintained that while the watts may be equal, the SW was causative to a much greater overall energy within the “system” due to it longer residence time striking and penetrating the tropical SH ocean, up to 800 feet deep. ( the epipelagic Zone ) and some even deeper to 3000′ (Mesopelagic Zone)

The interchange between the ocean and the atmosphere is a very active place. My understanding is that the oceans are, on average, a bit warmer then the surface atmosphere. (The dog is wagging the tail)

Regarding LWIRs ability to heat the ocean, I am often struck by how black and white the argument usually goes; as in…”LWIR cannot warm the oceans”. The counter argument goes, “can to”. I watched a very long post at WUWT go on and on like that. I tried once or twice to say wait a minute guys, let quantify this, or admit we don’t know. In general I think most of the energy of LWIR goes into evaporation, convection, and energy release through condensing at altitude, and radiation lost to space. However I can see the potential for the surface in some areas to warm, and slow the release of ocean heat. But if the state of our climate science is such that we do not know the answer to this in detail, then this alone, ignoring a dozen other major unknowns, is, IMV, adequate to completely discount the models.

Ron C. responds:

David, I am stimulated by this discussion and am posting it separately for others’ interest.

Your point about SH summer provides observational confirmation of the effects of thermal storage in the oceans.

Previously I have thought about your points in terms of the delay in heat transport from surface to space. Surrounded by the nearly absolute cold of space, our planet’s heat must move in that direction, which involves pushing it through the atmosphere. Of course, you are right that there is an additional delay within the oceans from the overturning required to bring energy to the surface for cooling. I like the image above depicting the water wheel as a massive traffic circle.

The Difference between climate on the Earth and the Moon

The intensity of solar energy is the same for the Earth and Moon, yet the dark side of the earth is much warmer than the dark side of the moon. And the bright side of the earth is much cooler than the bright side of the moon. Why are the two climates so different?

Earth’s oceans and atmosphere make the difference. Incoming sunlight is reduced by gases able to absorb IR and also by reflection from clouds and non-black surfaces. The earth’s surface is heated by sunlight, much of it stored and distributed by the oceans (71% of the planet surface). The atmosphere delays the upward passage of heat, and like a blanket slows the cooling allowing a buildup of temperature at the surface until there is a balance of heat radiating to space from the sky to match the solar energy coming in.

How the Atmosphere Processes Heat

There are 3 ways that heat (Infra-Red or IR radiation) passes from the surface to space.

1) A small amount of the radiation leaves directly, because all gases in our air are transparent to IR of 10-14 microns (sometimes called the “atmospheric window.” This pathway moves at the speed of light, so no delay of cooling occurs.

2) Some radiation is absorbed and re-emitted by IR active gases up to the tropopause. Calculations of the free mean path for CO2 show that energy passes from surface to tropopause in less than 5 milliseconds. This is almost speed of light, so delay is negligible.

3) The bulk gases of the atmosphere, O2 and N2, are warmed by conduction and convection from the surface. They also gain energy by collisions with IR active gases, some of that IR coming from the surface, and some absorbed directly from the sun. Latent heat from water is also added to the bulk gases. O2 and N2 are slow to shed this heat, and indeed must pass it back to IR active gases at the top of the troposphere for radiation into space.

In a parcel of air each molecule of CO2 is surrounded by 2500 other molecules, mostly O2 and N2. In the lower atmosphere, the air is dense and CO2 molecules energized by IR lose it to surrounding gases, slightly warming the entire parcel. Higher in the atmosphere, the air is thinner, and CO2 molecules can emit IR and lose energy relative to surrounding gases, who replace the energy lost.

This third pathway has a significant delay of cooling, and is the reason for our mild surface temperature, averaging about 15C. Yes, earth’s atmosphere produces a buildup of heat at the surface. The bulk gases, O2 and N2, trap heat near the surface, while IR-active gases, mainly H20 and CO2, provide the radiative cooling at the top of the atmosphere.



  1. ArndB · April 24, 2015

    Above it is said: “…of the moon. Why are the two climates so different? Earth’s oceans and atmosphere make the difference.”.
    I agree, but is it not the lack of water, which would mean: “Earth’s oceans and atmospheric humidity make the difference”? How the moon atmosphere would “handle” water (evaporated from an ocean) is a different question, but the moon has an atmosphere. According NASA (2013): „Still, we only have a partial list of what makes up the lunar atmosphere. Many other species are expected.“ http://www.nasa-usa.de/mission_pages/LADEE/news/lunar-atmosphere.html
    Understanding the mechanisms at the interface between oceans and air is likely to be one of the most challenging, a field out of reach for me. Nevertheless is a practical comparison between daily marine air temperature desert air temperatures a fascinating aspect. At sea (and coastal location in the Gulf of Mexico or Red Sea) the difference between day and night are minimal. Deep in a desert region they can be extreme: “At dawn, the dry desert ground may approach freezing temperatures and at midday it may heat up into an 80°C inferno.” http://www.unep.org/geo/gdoutlook/029.asp . The range depends heavily on the atmospheric humidity at that time, and in the altitude above. Without other special conditions (e.g. jet-stream, etc.), the released desert heat is quickly lost to space.

    Much differently is the case at and with the sea, and the interesting post considerations are most welcome and appreciated.


  2. Ron Clutz · April 24, 2015

    Arne, thanks for your points. I forget the exact numbers, but as you say most of the WV is from the oceans, and most of the air’s heat capacity is due to humidity. I include the atmosphere as it has an important role in poleward heat transport, especially at the higher latitudes. I am working on an essay as a start on this. I am pondering the chicken-egg relation between wind and temperature change.


    • Ron Clutz · April 24, 2015

      I meant Arnd, but iPad changed it for me. Arrrgh.


  3. David A · April 25, 2015

    Ron, I am honored that you elevated my comment. I am certainly not a scientist. However I do like to think, and science is, in a sense, formalized deductive reason. My background is production, and, until I retired, I was quite good at it. I developed what I call “The four Ps of production” necessary to make any job proceed efficiently. If anything in production goes wrong, it is always in one or more of those areas. This “Law” of production served me well in planning, in that if I correctly covered the four Ps, the job went well.

    I am not certain if this actually qualifies as a law of physics; “Only two things can affect the energy content of a system in a radiative balance, either a change in the input, or a change in the residence time of some aspect of the energy within the system.” but both RGB and Ira G from WUWT could find nothing wrong with it.

    Your post above appears to confirm a couple of things I stated. You said,
    “3) The bulk gases of the atmosphere, O2 and N2, are warmed by conduction and convection from the surface. They also gain energy by collisions with IR active gases, some of that IR coming from the surface, and some absorbed directly from the sun. Latent heat from water is also added to the bulk gases. O2 and N2 are slow to shed this heat, and indeed must pass it back to IR active gases at the top of the troposphere for radiation into space.”

    This appears harmonious with stating that GHGs increase the residence time (warming) of upwelling LWIR, but decrease (cooling) the residence time of atmospheric energy that was conducted from the surface. After all, conducted energy in an atmosphere of zero GHGs would just bounce around establishing local thermal dynamic equilibriums and a lapse rate based primarily on molecular density. Eventually, I suppose, the bottom of the atmosphere would equalize with the surface T, and then back conduction?

    (Hum?) …would this mean that the surface T was equal to the surface insolation, plus the energy back conducting, or would the energy conducting away exactly balance the energy conducting to the atmosphere? Currently with the surface slightly to a great deal warmer then the air just above, the net conductive flow is to the atmosphere. It appears logical that in a non GHG atmosphere, the net flow would be equal, thus whatever energy it takes to equalize the flow would partially compensate for the lack of GHG down-welling radiation.

    The above leads one to consider that the relative warming or cooling capacity of GHG in an atmosphere is partially dependent on the percentage of GHG within the atmosphere. Imagining our non GHG atmosphere now conductively equalized to the surface. Now if we add a single GHG molecule into that atmosphere it would likely have disparate warming or cooling affects depending on the altitude it was inserted at.

    In the lower atmosphere it would most commonly act as any non GHG molecule, taking on whatever LTDE was in the surrounding atmosphere, conductively exchanging their energy with each other to maintain the LTDE. (Local Thermo dynamic equilibrium) However at some altitude it would be likely to take that conducted energy, and instead radiated it to space, thus have a cooling effect, or perhaps at some altitude it would be more likely to receive surface radiant energy and then either radiate that energy back towards the surface, or if collusion occurred before it could radiate it, then transfer that energy conductively to a non GHG molecule, in either case warming. I have no idea how these complex reactions can be quantified within our atmosphere.

    FYI, Initially I just wanted to understand what CAGW was all about. I read “Climate Audit”, Real Climate, and WUWT. Climate audit was highly educational through all the hockeystick wars. After about two hundred hours of study I began to form a skeptical view, which has only been reinforced since. In a discussion about CAGW I never bring up these subjects. I stick to the failure of the “C” in CAGW, and to the failure of the models, and remind folk about the known benefits of CO2, always supportable from national and international data bases and the peer reviewed literature.

    However, in reading from a layman’s perspective, and striving to maintain a logical view point, I developed some perhaps unique ways of perceiving things which help, me at least, understand to a degree things beyond my mathematical ability to formulate. At a minimum they allow me to ask questions which further my understanding. In this sense many of my assertions are really questions.

    Much, IMV, is simply unknown, IMV, science would need to know the mean residence time of every w/l of solar energy striking the surface, and then, initially under the assumption of no changes in total surface insolation, calculate the mean energy gain or loss of changing solar cycles based on the change of solar insolation W/L at the surface and within the atmosphere at different altitudes, longitudes and latitudes. (Remember, residence time is a function of the w/l of the energy involved, and the materials encountered). Not only do we lack adequate understanding of the relative warming or cooling affects of these changes to earth’s energy budget, we lack much understanding of ENSO cycles, their causes, and future changes.

    Also our current deficiencies in understanding net cloud changes, and their associated feedbacks, as well as limited understanding of causes and effects of changes in jet stream strengths and latitude locations and different feedbacks from those changes, as well as the fact that we cannot quantify the difference in ocean warming capacity of different radiant w/l, and our capacity to measure these things (such as mean ocean and or atmospheric T) in not adequately refined either.

    However the ocean GHL (Green House Liquid) clearly is the dog wagging the atmospheres tail.
    AMO and NH temperature de-trended… https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/mean12.png

    None of these limitations convince me of the need to change society based on the precautionary principle for multiple reasons. The observations indicate that the “harms” of CAGW, based on the observationally wrong modeled mean, simply are not now, and will likely not in the future manifest, and the KNOWN benefits of CO2 are manifesting in every crop on the planet. Additionally, if some of the negative consequences predicted by the IPCC actually ever manifest we will be forced to mitigate regardless, as both India and China will ensure that emissions continue to increase and any reduction in US or European emissions will have an ever increasingly trivial affect on the GMT.

    I am reading your T posts and find them excellent.


    • Ron Clutz · April 25, 2015

      Thanks for expressing your views here. I have a longer response to you put up as a separate post, On Climate Theories


  4. Pingback: The Climate Water Wheel | Science Matters
  5. ArndB · April 26, 2015

    David A: An interesting comment, but IMO too narrow with regard to: “None of these limitations convince me of the need to change society based on the precautionary principle for multiple reasons.”, as the precautionary principle should be not ignored with regard to the oceans.

    In your long list about “…our current deficiencies “, the oceans would have deserved a prime place. Before turning to “…we lack much understanding of ENSO cycles” At the last link-reference Paul Homewood asked (1. Sept.2014, 3:37pm in Re to David) “Which leaves the $64000 question – what drives changes in ocean temperatures?” https://notalotofpeopleknowthat.wordpress.com/2014/08/22/correlation-of-the-amo-with-nh-temperatures/
    Beside from sun ray, it is primarily the ocean that drive changes in ocean temperature in numerous ways, by internal horizontal and vertical currents, eddies, and meanders. Other forces to the ocean interior have a minor share, as ocean floor seamounts and hotspots, for example, and external forces as wind and precipitation. Understanding it in details should be the 100 billon $-question, about the UN-COP21 in Paris in December 2015. Probably CO2 will get everything.

    Particularly ENSO tells us more, as every square mile of ocean space works as ENSO does. ENSO is one of the most prominent oceanic events, based on a band (pool) of warmer water, up to about max.10°C higher than surrounding water. This pool travels in the Pacific equatorial region from West to East, usually in a period of a few months. The overall size of the pool is – casually speaking – “a drop” within the total ocean body, several 100 km long, but has merely a depth in the 100 meter range.*). While it is well known that such an event cause weather anomalies at many place worldwide, the physical mechanism is similar as in any other sea area, with the exception that the “warm pool” does not happen elsewhere, or similar events are not known. But another aspect comes into play: Why a “warm pool” is exceptional, ocean internal water movements is numerous, and the overall temperature is only about +4°C, “cold pools” can spring up quickly. This would either affect the weather. There are many ways the oceans can “consume” sea surface heat and preplace it with colder water from a few meters down to many hundred meters. And in this field we know and understand by far too little, including the numerous impacts by human activities at and below the sea surface.
    IMO the ‘precautionary principle’ applied for the ocean is a very urgent matter.

    *)image El Nino July 1997: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/ElNino/Images/sst_depth_7-97.jpg


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