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Carbon Dioxide and the Climate

A 1956 American Scientist article explores climate change; two contemporary commentaries illuminate its relevance to the present

Gilbert N. Plass, James Rodger Fleming, Gavin Schmidt

Graph of carbon dioxide pressure versus amountClick to Enlarge ImageFortunately for us, three other gases occur in our atmosphere in relatively minute quantities: carbon dioxide, water vapor, and ozone. Unlike the more abundant gases, all three of these rarer gases absorb strongly over at least a portion of the infrared spectrum. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about 0.03 per cent by volume, it is fairly uniformly mixed as high as accurate measurements have been made. Water vapor and ozone also exist in very small concentrations in the atmosphere, but the exact amount that is present varies with time and place.

The infrared absorption properties of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and ozone determine our climate to a large extent. Their action has often been compared to that of a greenhouse. There the rays of the sun bring the heat energy in through the transparent glass. However, the outgoing heat energy from the plants and other objects in the greenhouse is in the infrared where glass is largely opaque. The heat energy is fairly effectively trapped inside the greenhouse and the temperature is considerably warmer than outside.

In a similar manner the temperature at the surface of the Earth is controlled by the transparency of the atmosphere in the visible and infrared portions of the spectrum. The incoming radiation from the sun in the visible portion of the spectrum reaches the surface of the Earth on a clear day with relatively little attenuation since the atmosphere is transparent to most frequencies in the visible. However, in order to have a warm climate, this heat energy must be held near the surface of the Earth and cannot be reradiated to space immediately. The atmosphere is opaque or partially opaque to a large range of frequencies in the infrared because of the absorption properties of the three relatively rare gases described above. Thus radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface cannot escape freely to space and the temperature at the surface is higher than it would be otherwise. The atmosphere has just the same properties as the glass in the greenhouse. The carbon dioxide theory states that, as the amount of carbon dioxide increases, the atmosphere becomes opaque over a larger frequency interval; the outgoing radiation is trapped more effectively near the Earth’s surface and the temperature rises. The latest calculations show that if the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere should double, the surface temperature would rise 3.6 degrees Celsius and if the amount should be cut in half, the surface temperature would fall 3.8 degrees.

The carbon dioxide theory was first proposed in 1861 by Tyndall. The first extensive calculations were necessarily done by very approximate methods. There are thousands of spectral lines due to carbon dioxide which are responsible for the absorption and each of these lines occurs in a complicated pattern with variations in intensity and the width of the spectral lines. Further the pattern is not even the same at all heights in the atmosphere, since the width and intensity of the spectral lines varies with the temperature and pressure. Only recently has a reasonably accurate solution to the problem of the influence of carbon dioxide on surface temperature been possible, because of accurate infrared measurements, theoretical developments, and the availability of a high-speed electronic computer.

The fact that water vapor absorbs to some extent in the same spectral interval as carbon dioxide is the basis for the usual objection to the carbon dioxide theory. According to this argument the water vapor absorption is so large that there would be virtually no change in the outgoing radiation if the carbon dioxide concentration should change. However, this conclusion was based on early, very approximate treatments of the very complex problem of the calculation of the infrared flux in the atmosphere. Recent and more accurate calculations that take into account the detailed structure of the spectra of these two gases show that they are relatively independent of one another in their influence on the infrared absorption. There are two main reasons for this result: (1) there is no correlation between the frequencies of the spectral lines for carbon dioxide and water vapor and so the lines do not often overlap because of nearly coincident positions for the spectral lines; (2) the fractional concentration of water vapor falls off very rapidly with height whereas carbon dioxide is nearly uniformly distributed. Because of this last fact, even if the water vapor absorption were larger than that of carbon dioxide in a certain spectral interval at the surface of the Earth, at only a short distance above the ground the carbon dioxide absorption would be considerably larger than that of the water vapor. Careful estimates show that the temperature changes given above for carbon dioxide would not be reduced by more than 20 per cent because of water vapor absorption.

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