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Shop Windows to the UniverseYoung Voices for the Planet DVD in our online store includes 8 films where students speak out and take action on climate change.
Previously, we had assumed a simplified model of Earth; one in which our planet had not atmosphere. You probably know that scientists think of our atmosphere as having several distinct layers with specific traits. Though not universally recognized as a layer of our atmosphere, some scientists consider the exosphere to be the outermost layer of Earth's atmosphere. Let's now take a look at the electromagnetic radiation, of various wavelengths and energies, from the Sun as it penetrates into Earth's atmosphere.
All of the high-energy X-rays are absorbed by our atmosphere well above our heads, which is very fortunate for us indeed!
Most of the longer wavelength IR waves, and many of the shorter radio waves, are absorbed by the stratosphere before reaching the ground. Recall how the temperature of the various layers of Earth's atmosphere rises and falls as one moves upward from the ground, in a seemingly haphazard fashion. Most of the solar radiation that reaches the Earth or its lower atmosphere, where albedo from clouds and features on the ground come into play, is thus in the form of visible light. As was demonstrated in the "Infrared - More Than Your Eyes Can See" video earlier, some substances are transparent to certain wavelengths of EM radiation, but largely opaque to others. As infrared radiation from the ground and low-lying clouds works its way up through the atmosphere, much of it is absorbed; by gases in the air and by clouds (which have lots of IR-opaque water). Here (below) are three different diagrams illustrating the flow of visible light into, and infrared light back out of, the lower regions of Earth's atmosphere. Earth gets all its energy from the Sun and loses energy into space If more energy is lost into space than is received from the Sun, the planet gets cooler. While it might be quite warm in the countryside on a summer day, it can get unbearably hot in a nearby city!
Notice: Unless stated otherwise, the graphical resources uploaded to this site are NOT for commercial use. On the simplest level, the weather is what is happening in the atmosphere at any given time. In a broader sense, climate is the status of the climate system which comprises the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the surface lithosphere and the biosphere.
The most often used classification scheme is that of Vladimir Koppen, first presented in the early 1900’s and revised frequently since.
Hot desert floras are plants mainly composed of ground-hugging shrubs and short woody trees found in tropical arid lands. Boreal forests or Taiga are found in the northern hemisphere over areas at the interface between temperate and polar climates. Tundra is characterized by tree growth hindered by low temperatures and a short growing season. Other types of vegetation, such as bushlands or heathlands, are considered subdivisions of the main climactic types. All the parameters of the Earth’s climate (wind, rain, clouds, temperature…) are the result of energy transfer and transformations within the atmosphere at the Earth’s surface and in the oceans.
The temperature of the Earth results from a balance between energy coming into the Earth from the Sun (solar radiation) and the energy leaving the Earth into outer space.  About half the solar radiation striking the Earth and its atmosphere is absorbed at the surface. Because the Earth is round and its position in the solar system, more solar energy is absorbed in the tropics creating temperature differences from the equator to the poles.
The energy budget of the Earth can be changed, which in turn can affect the Earth’s temperature. All the water in the atmosphere gets replaced every 8 days, while it can take up to 100 years for the water in a lake to be renewed.


Normally these processes balance each other, but human-driven emissions of greenhouse gases are altering the balance by retaining more heat in the atmosphere.
This allowed us to examine the basic effects of albedo, latitude, and seasons on our planet's overall average temperature.
Let's quickly review the structure of the atmosphere, since some aspects of that story are relevant to how and where solar energy gets absorbed. It extends upward from the ground to an altitude of about 16 km (in the tropics, or 8 km near the poles). Starting at the top of the thermosphere, this extremely tenuous layer gradually gives way to the vacuum of interplanetary space. Fortunately for us, all of the high energy X-rays and most UV is filtered out long before it reaches the ground. Recall that the Sun emits a broad range of frequencies, from high-energy X-rays and ultraviolet radiation, through visible light, on on down the spectrum to the lower energy infrared and radio waves. Likewise, most of the UV radiation (especially the highest energy, shortest wavelength regions of the UV spectrum) is blocked by the thermosphere, mesosphere, and stratosphere.
It includes some of the longer wavelength UV frequencies, some of the shorter wavelength IR frequencies, and all of the visble light region of the spectrum.
Recall also that the peak of the Sun's EM emissions are in the visible light region of the spectrum. So about 30% of the incoming sunlight is reflected back into space by clouds or light areas on Earth's surface, or scattered back out into space by gas molecules in the atmosphere (that scattering is what makes the sky blue, not black!).
Such is the case with the panes of glass in a greenhouse; sunlight readily passes in, providing plants with the energy they need for photosynthesis and warming the inside of the greenhouse, but the IR radiation that the warmed interior emits does not readily pass back out through the glass, for the glass is largely opaque at infrared frequencies. The Website was developed in part with the support of UCAR and NCAR, where it resided from 2000 - 2010. Some types of clouds act like giant sun umbrellas, shading the Earth and reflecting the sunlight that hits them. That’s because the buildings and pavement in cities absorb oodles of sunlight, much more than the countryside.
The climate, in a narrow sense, can be considered as the “average weather”, or in a more scientifically accurate way, it can be defined as “the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time”. The hydrosphere is the part of the climate system containing liquid water at the Earth’s surface and underground (e.g. Over time, the Earth’s climate remains largely stable because the energy received is equal to that lost (the energy budget is balanced). The other half is absorbed by the atmosphere or reflected back into space by clouds, small particles in the atmosphere, snow, ice and deserts at the Earth’s surface.
Atmospheric and oceanic circulation contributes to reducing these differences by transporting heat from the tropics to the mid-latitudes and the polar regions. An increase in the greenhouse effect, feedbacks in the climate system, or other changes can modify the energy budget of the Earth. We'll now add the atmosphere into our figuring; this will complicate matters, but will also make our model more realistic. Temperatures once again decline with increasing altitude (as was the case in the troposphere), falling as low as -100° C (-146° F) in the upper mesosphere.
This region is one in which temperatures once again rise with increasing altitude, reaching as high as 2,500°C (4,500°F) in the daytime! Different wavelengths of this solar radiation behave differently as they enter our atmosphere.
The relatively low energy, long wavelength portion of the UV spectrum that does reach the ground forces us to wear sunglasses and slather ourselves with sunscreen to protect ourselves from sunburn and skin cancer. The longest wavelength radio waves also fail to penetrate the atmosphere; many are absorbed or reflected by the ionosphere.


So, although the atmosphere blocks out much of the range Sun's range of EM emissions at various altitudes, the bulk of the EM radiation from the Sun in the form of visible light does reach at least as far as the troposphere. Some of that radiation goes upward, escaping into space; but some goes downward, further warming the ground and the lower atmosphere. I think each diagram has its strengths in helping to tell parts of the story; and I'll let you choose which (if any) you think might be most helpful when presenting these ideas to your students.
Other types of clouds act like a jacket, holding the heat in and preventing it from leaving the atmosphere. We will just take a basic look at the atmosphere's influence on incoming solar radiation; we won't discuss winds and circulation patterns at this point.
Jet airliners fly in this layer, for it is far less turbulent than the underlying troposphere.
This layer is relatively poorly studied, for it is above the reach of most aircraft but below the altitude where satellites orbit. Embedded within the thermosphere are several layers of the ionosphere; regions where ionized gas particles can reflect radio waves, a feature that people used to send messages beyond the line-of-sight range of the horizon before the advent of satellites. Most radio waves do make it to the ground, along with a narrow "window" of IR, UV, and visible light frequencies. This cycling of the IR radiation's energy through the lower atmosphere warms our planet to a much more comfortable temperature than the frigid range that we calculated for an airless world.
Cities have fewer plants and bodies of water and so are not cooled very much by evaporation. The troposphere is warmest near ground level, and cools gradually the higher up in it one goes.
The stratosphere extends upward from the top of the troposphere to an altitude of about 50 km. Our atmosphere is opaque across much of the IR spectrum; take a look again at the image above that shows how much of the incoming IR radiation from the Sun fails to make it to the ground. However, this could change if global warming affects the type of clouds, their thickness, and how much water or ice they contain.
This indicates how many days that month the building needed either heating or cooling to be comfortable. Many of the atoms and molecules in the thermosphere (and above) have lost electrons, thus becoming electrically charged ions; so the motions of particles in the upper atmosphere are partially influenced by electrical currents and Earth's magnetic field. On the way in, most of the EM radiation is in the form of visible light, which easily passes through clear air. The surface lithosphere is the upper layer of solid Earth on land and oceans supporting volcanic activity which influence climate. At this point a critical player in the climate drama enters the scene - the Greenhouse Effect!
On the way, back up, however, much of the radiation is in the form of infrared, which is absorbed and thus stopped before it reaches space. The biosphere contains all living organisms and ecosystems over the land and in the oceans. Earth's atmosphere, like the panes of glass in the greenhouse, traps much of the infrared radiation, and the heat that it carries, warming our planet. Several different gases play a role in this greenhouse effect; water vapor, carbon dioxide, and methane are amongst the most prominent.



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