Читать онлайн "Broca's Brain: The Romance of Science" автора Саган Карл Эдуард - RuLit - Страница 54

 
...
 
     



Выбрать главу
Загрузка...

What determines the temperature of Earth? As seen from space, it is a rotating blue ball streaked with varying cloud patches, reddish-brown deserts and brilliant white polar caps. The energy for heating the Earth comes almost exclusively from sunlight, the energy conducted up from the hot interior of the Earth amounting to less than one thousandth of one percent of that arriving in the form of visible light from the Sun. But not all the sunlight is absorbed by the Earth. Some is reflected back to space by polar ice, clouds, and the rocks and water on the surface of the Earth. The average reflectivity, or albedo, of the Earth, as measured directly from satellites and indirectly from Earthshine reflected off the dark side of the Moon, is about 35 percent. The 65 percent of sunlight that is absorbed by the Earth heats it to a temperature which can readily be calculated. This temperature is about −18°C, below the freezing point of seawater and some 30°C colder than the measured average temperature of the Earth.

The discrepancy is due to the fact that this calculation neglects the so-called greenhouse effect. Visible light from the Sun enters the Earth’s clear atmosphere and is transmitted through to the surface. The surface, however, in attempting to radiate back into space, is constrained by the laws of physics to do so in the infrared. The atmosphere is not so transparent in the infrared, and at some wavelengths of infrared radiation-such as 6.2 microns or 15 microns-radiation would travel only a few centimeters before being absorbed by atmospheric gases. Since the Earth’s atmosphere is murky and absorbing at many wavelengths in the infrared, the thermal radiation given off by the surface of the Earth is impeded in escaping to space. In order to have a close equality between the radiation received by the Earth from the Sun and the radiation emitted by the Earth to space, the surface temperature of the Earth must then rise. The greenhouse effect is due not to the major atmospheric constituents of the Earth, such as oxygen and nitrogen, but almost exclusively to the minor constituents, especially carbon dioxide and water vapor.

As we have seen, the planet Venus is probably a case where the massive injection of carbon dioxide and smaller amounts of water vapor into a planetary atmosphere has led to such a large greenhouse effect that water cannot be maintained on the surface in the liquid state; hence, the planetary temperature runs away to some extremely high value-in the case of Venus, 480°C.

We have so far been talking about average temperatures. The temperature of the Earth varies from place to place. It is colder at the poles than at the equator because, in general, sunlight falls directly on the equator and obliquely on the poles. The tendency for the temperatures to be very different between equator and poles on Earth is moderated by atmospheric circulation. Hot air rises at the equator and moves at high altitudes to the poles, where it settles and returns to the surface; it then retraces its path, but at low altitudes, from pole back to equator. This general motion-complicated by the rotation of the Earth, its topography and the phase changes of water-is responsible for weather.

The observed average temperature of about 15°C on the Earth today can be explained quite well by the observed intensity of sunlight, global albedo, the tilt of the rotational axis and the greenhouse effect. But all of these parameters can, in principle, vary; and past or future climatic change can be attributed to changes in any of them. In fact, there have been almost a hundred different theories of climatic change on Earth, and even today the subject is hardly marked by unanimity of opinion. This is not because climatologists are by nature ignorant or contentious, but rather because the subject is exceedingly complex.

Both negative and positive feedback mechanisms probably exist. Suppose, for example, there were a decrease of a few degrees in the Earth’s temperature. The amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is determined almost entirely by temperature and declines by snowing out as the temperature declines. Less water in the atmosphere implies a smaller greenhouse effect and a further lowering of the temperature, which may result in even less atmospheric water vapor, and so on. Likewise, a decline in temperature may increase the amount of polar ice, increasing the albedo of the Earth and decreasing the temperature still further. On the other hand, a decline in temperature may decrease the amount of cloudiness, which will decrease the average albedo of the Earth and increase the temperature-perhaps enough to undo the initial temperature decrease. And it has been proposed recently that the biology of the planet Earth acts as a kind of thermostat to prevent too extreme excursions in temperature which might have deleterious global biological consequences. For example, a decline in temperature may cause an increase of a species of hardy plants that has extensive ground cover and low albedo.

Three of the more fashionable and more interesting theories of climatic change should be mentioned. The first involves a change in celestial mechanical variables: the shape of the Earth’s orbit, the tilt of its axis of rotation, and the precession of that axis all vary over long periods of time because of the interaction of the Earth with other nearby celestial objects. Detailed calculations of the extent of such variations show that they can be responsible for at least a few degrees of temperature variation, and with the possibility of positive feedbacks this might, by itself, be adequate to explain major climatic variations.

A second class of theories involves albedo variations. One of the more striking causes for such variations is the injection into the Earth’s atmosphere of massive amounts of dust-for example, from a volcanic explosion such as Kiakatoa’s in 1883. While there has been some debate on whether such dust heats or cools the Earth, the bulk of present calculations shows that the fine particulates, very slowly falling out of Earth’s stratosphere, increase the Earth’s albedo and therefore cool it. There is recent sedimentological evidence that past epochs of extensive production of volcanic particulates correspond in time to past epochs of glaciation and low temperatures. In addition, episodes of mountain building and the creation of land surface on the Earth increase the global albedo because the land is brighter than the water.

Finally, there is the possibility of variations in the brightness of the Sun. We know-from theories of solar evolution-that over many billions of years the Sun has been getting steadily brighter. This immediately poses a problem for the most ancient climatology of the Earth, because the Sun should have been 30 or 40 percent dimmer some 3 or 4 billion years ago; and this is enough, even with the greenhouse effect, to have resulted in global temperatures well below the freezing point of seawater. Yet there is extensive geological evidence-for example, underwater ripple marks, pillow lavas produced by the quenching of magma in the ocean, and fossil stromatolites produced by oceanic algae-that there was ample water then available. One proposed way out of this quandary is the possibility that there were additional greenhouse gases in the early atmosphere of the Earth-especially ammonia-which produced the required temperature increment. But apart from this very slow evolution of the brightness of the Sun, is it possible that shorter-term fluctuations occur? This is an important and unsolved problem, but recent difficulties in finding neutrinos-which should, according to current theories, be emitted from the interior of the Sun-have led to the suggestion that the Sun is today in an anomalously dim period.

The inability to distinguish between the various alternative models of climatic change might appear to be nothing more than an unusually annoying intellectual problem-except for the fact that there appear to be certain practical and immediate consequences of climatic change. Some evidence on the trend of global temperature seems to show a very slow increase from the beginning of the industrial revolution to about 1940, and an alarmingly steep decline in global temperature thereafter. This pattern has been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, which has two consequences-the liberation of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, and the simultaneous injection into the atmosphere of fine particles, from the incomplete burning of the fuel. The carbon dioxide heats the Earth; the fine particles, through their higher albedo, cool it. It may be that until 1940 the greenhouse effect was winning, and since then the increased albedo is winning.

     

 

2011 - 2018