Fundamentals of Atmospheric Science




Atmospheric radiation plays a critical role in life on Earth and in weather. Without solar heating, Earth would be a dead frozen ball hurtling through space. Luckily, the energy that Earth receives from solar radiation is sufficient to produce liquid water on its surface, thus enabling life to thrive. In this lesson we will look at solar radiation and its changes over time. Radiation is just another form of energy and can be readily converted into other forms, especially thermal energy, which is sometimes called "heat." In this lesson, we will use the word "radiation" to mean all electromagnetic waves, including ultraviolet, visible, and infrared radiation. We will introduce some unfamiliar terms like "radiance" and "irradiance" and will be careful with our language to prevent confusion.

An important concept in studying atmospheric radiation is that all objects emit and absorb radiation. For a perfect emitter, the radiation emitted by an object, called the irradiance, is determined by the Planck function, which depends only on temperature and wavelength. The higher the temperature, the greater the radiation emitted at all wavelengths and the shorter the wavelength of the peak energy. The Sun emits mainly in the visible while Earth and its atmosphere emit mainly in the infrared. No object is really a perfect emitter at every wavelength; the unitless number emissivity measures how good or poor an emitter is. At each wavelength, a good emitter is a good absorber.

How well an object absorbs at different wavelengths of radiation, called its absorptivity, depends on its chemical composition and the rules of quantum mechanics. As a result, some absorption is strong and some is weak; some is in sharp lines while some is in broad features in the wavelength spectrum; some is in the UV, particularly due to O2 and O3, little is in the visible, and much absorption, including broad bands and sharp lines, occurs in the infrared, particularly by H2O, CO2, and O3.

The radiation that is not absorbed by a gas, liquid or solid is either transmitted or scattered. The amount of transmitted radiation depends on the absorption and scattering cross sections of the gas, liquid, or solid components of matter, so that the larger the cross section and the distance through the matter, the less radiation passes through the matter. The decay of the transmitted light with distance through the matter is exponential, as is described by Beer’s Law.

Earth’s surface and atmospheric gases can emit and absorb radiation at the same wavelengths. Most of Earth’s emissions are at infrared wavelengths, whether the emission be from the surface, clouds, or atmospheric gases.

Scattering of atmospheric radiation complements absorption and is even more difficult to track through the atmosphere than absorption is. The wavelength of the radiation and the size, shape, and composition of the scattering particle together determine the scattering efficiency and scattering pattern. Many of the skies that we remember best are due to the scattering and absorption of sunlight.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • identify the causes of changing solar radiation on Earth
  • calculate properties of the spectrum of solar and earth radiation in terms of the Planck function
  • calculate the absorption between you and a light source
  • explain why the sky looks blue and hazy in the summer


If you have any questions, please post them to the Course Questions discussion forum. I will check that discussion forum daily to respond. While you are there, feel free to post your own responses if you, too, are able to help out a classmate.