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Chapter 8 - Atmospheric Circulation

Our atmosphere is the gaseous mass or envelope surrounding the Earth, and retained by the Earth's gravitational field. Other planets and moons in the Solar System have atmospheres. The atmosphere plays many important roles in moving water in the world's ocean basins, and for supporting life on Earth!

Earth's atmosphere is:

• The outermost "sphere"
Density stratified - air is compressed and most dense near the surface and grows increasingly "rarified" skyward.
• About 100 kilometers thick between the ocean/land surface and the vacuum of space.
Click on thumbnail images for a larger view.
Layers of the atmosphere as viewed from space.
Fig. 8-1. Layers of the atmosphere seem from space..

Structure of the Atmosphere

The Earth's atmosphere is subdivided into levels (Figure 8-2):
Layers of the atmosphere
Fig. 8-2. Structure of Earth's atmosphere.
* The troposphere is the lowest portion (up to about 6-8 miles) where all weather takes place and contains about 80% of the air's mass and 99% of water vapor.
* The overlying stratosphere contains an abundance of ozone which absorbs ultraviolet radiation, protecting life on land and in the shallow ocean extends up to about 31 miles.
*The mesosphere is the part of the earth's upper atmosphere above the stratosphere in which temperature decreases with altitude to the atmosphere's absolute minimum.
* The thermosphere the region of the atmosphere above the mesosphere and below the height at which the atmosphere ceases to have the properties of a continuous medium (about 60 miles). The thermosphere is characterized throughout by an increase in temperature with height, where the charged atomic particles of the solar wind begins to interact with atmospheric gases.
Energy Transfer Through the Atmosphere

The amount of energy coming into the Earth from the Sun is equal to the energy reflected and radiated back into space. The atmosphere, oceans, and land absorb and release energy. Living things also absorb and release energy. Some of the energy stored in organic matter is preserved when it is buried in sediments. Geothermal energy is also a trace of the energy radiated into space. The rate of energy transfer also varies due to cloud cover and ice and snow coverage.

Incoming solar radiation
involves all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum. Figure 8-3 shows the wavelengths and intensity of solar energy striking the top of the atmosphere and the energy reaching the surface. The atmosphere is transparent to most wavelengths, but part of the solar spectrum are absorbed by certain "greenhouse gases" in the atmosphere including water vapor, carbon dioxide, ozone, methane, and other gases. Shorter wavelengths (UV and blue light) is diffused in the air—making the sky blue. Longer wavelengths are less diffused—making sunsets and sunrises red (Figure 8-4).

Energy that is not reflected back into space is radiated back into space in wavelengths longer than visible light (mostly in the thermal infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum).
Specturm of solar radiation absorbed by the atmosphere
Fig. 8-3. Wavelengths of solar energy transmitted and absorbed by the atmosphere.
Electromagnetic energy transfer in the atmosphere
Fig. 8-4. Energy transfer through the atmosphere

Composition of the Atmosphere

Nitrogen (N2) - 78%
Oxygen (O2) - 21%
Argon - 0.9%
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) - 0.036%
Others < 1 % - Neon, Helium, Methane (CH4), Krypton, Hydrogen (H2), traces of other compounds

Other trace gases
in variable amounts include nitrogen oxides, ozone (O3), sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, CFCs, and more. These gases are released by volcanic eruptions, lightning, erosion, and pollutants from human activity (energy consumption, industrial releases, and agriculture).

Composition of the atmosphere
Fig. 8-5. Chemical composition of the atmosphere (major and trace gases)

Water (moisture) in the Air

The amount of water vapor in the air can range from trace amounts up to about 4% by volume. Warm air can hold more moisture than cold air. The amount water moisture that air can hold depends on factors including temperature, air pressure, and the amount and kinds of particulate matter dispersed in the air. When air has reached the maximum amount or water it can hold it is called saturated - this occurs when it is raining or snowing!

The Water Cycle

The "water cycle" involves all processes by which water circulates between the Earth's oceans, atmosphere, and land. It involving precipitation as rain, snow, hail, drainage in streams and rivers, and return to the atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration. The weight of the atmosphere provides the pressure needed to keep water liquid on the surface of the planet. Planets and moons with thin or no atmosphere may have water is ice, but there will be no permanent bodies of liquid water. Ice will sublimate directly to water vapor in a vacuum.

The Water Cycle is also called the Hydrologic Cycle (USGS)
Water Cycle (NASA version)
Fig. 8-6. The Water Cycle

Atmospheric (Barometric) Pressure

A barometer is an instrument measuring atmospheric pressure, used especially in forecasting the weather and determining altitude (Figure 8-7).

Air pressure on the planet is directly related to the mass of the air column above at any location under the influence of gravity: Pressure = Force/Area

Atmospheric air pressure is reported as “average air pressure” measured at “standard sea level.”

to describe atmospheric pressure includes atmospheres, PSI (pounds per square inch) and millibars.

One atmosphere (Earth) is equal to the weight of the earth's "average air pressure" at "standard sea level."

1 atmosphere (Earth) is equivalent to:
• 14.7 pounds per square inch (psi)
• 29.92 “inches of mercury”
• 406.8 inches of water (33.9 feet)
• seawater (33.4 feet)
1.01325 bars or 1013.25 millibars (mb)

Atmospheric Pressure changes with altitude (elevation)(Figure 8-8).
Elevation and air pressure have an inverse relationship - air pressure decreases with increasing elevation. At an elevation of about 18,000 feet you would be above about half of the atmosphere. That... depends on the weather!
Fig. 8-7. Barometers
Air pressure with altitude
Fig. 8-8. Atmospheric pressure decreases with altitude on a curve.

Density of Warm Air vs. Cool Air

As air is heated it expands (moving atoms apart). This reduces the density of air in unconfined space. As a result warm air rises. Conversely, as air cools, it condenses (moving atoms together) and increases it's density in unconfined space. As a result cold air sinks. Because the atmosphere is unconfined, dense cool air will sink and flow to displace warm air in another location.

Density of Moist Air vs. Dry Air

Air saturated with water vapor is less dense than dry air. As a result, moist air will rise relative to dry air if air temperatures and pressures are the same.
Hot air and cold air
Fig. 8-9. Differences in air pressure at different levels in the atmosphere drive the movement of air.

Atmospheric Convection

Convection is the circulation of fluid due to density differences. Atmospheric convection works like a pot of boiling soup, warm fluid rising (in middle) and cool fluid falling (on sides). A rising storm thunderhead is an example of atmospheric convection. Warm moist air rises, expands, releases energy as clouds form. After releasing its heat and moisture, the cooled air sinks, displacing warm air below (Figure 8-10).

Air convection
Fig. 8-10. Atmospheric convection.

Air Pressure Gradients and Air Pressure Systems

• Surface winds blow from high to low pressure - this is called a pressure gradient—displayed as lines of equal barometric pressure on a weather map (Figure 8-11).

An air mass is a body of air with a relative horizontally uniform temperature, humidity, and pressure:

High pressure systems have dry conditions with sinking air masses.
Low pressure systems have wetter conditions with rising air masses.
Air pressure gradient and air pressure systems
Fig. 8-11. Air pressure gradients and air pressure systems.
Types of air mass are classed by where they form:

Polar - source regions above 60° north and south:
Polar Maritime
(cold and moist)
Polar Continental
(cold and dry)
Temperate - between 25° and 60°N/S:
Temperate Maritime
(cool and wet)
Temperate Continental
(warm and dry)
Tropical - source regions within about 25° of the equator:
Tropical Maritime
(warm and wet)

Tropical Continental
(hot and dry)

As air masses move they change to match the attributes of the next region, either gaining or loosing warmth and moisture. For instance if a polar (Arctic) air mass moves south over the continent it will become warmer and dryer (becoming a "Polar Continental" air mass; see example in Figure 8-12). If it moves over the ocean it will become warmer and pick up moisture and become a "Polar Maritime" air mass. When a maritime air mass moves over a large landmass it can loose its moisture, heat up, and become a continental air mass.

Air masses can move rapidly (if air pressure gradients are high). Air masses can control the weather for a relatively long periods ranging from days to months. They can also stagnate in one region causing long periods or rain or drought. Most weather occurs along around air masses at boundaries called fronts.
Origin of air masses affecting North America
Fig. 8-12. Origin of air masses affecting North America's weather. Air masses move as air pressure gradients change over time.
A Year in Weather (2013)
NASA YouTube animation
- a global mercator map showing storm systems around the world for a year starting in January, 2013. Note the tropical cyclones (typhoons) in the Eastern Pacific, the weather patterns in the Intertropical Convergence Zone, and the Antarctic circumpolar region.

Dust, Aerosols, and Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCNs)

Cloud condensation nuclei (also known as "cloud seeds") are small particles typically 0.2 µm, or 1/100th the size of a cloud droplet on which water vapor condenses. CCNs are aerosols, an aerosol is a colloidal suspension of microscopic particles dispersed in air or gas. The aerosols can be a combination of solid particles and liquid compounds (liquid water or organic residues).

Examples of CCNs include:
- dust particles (clays) - most are from wind storms in desert regions (see NASA video with Figure 8-13)
- soot from fires
- volcanic ash
- salts from sea spray
- sulfate compounds released by phytoplankton in the oceans
- pollen and organic aerosol compounds released by land plants (Figure 8-14)
- pollution (smog) (Figure 8-15).

CCNS are abundant in the air. The adhesion properties of water, allows water droplets (or ice) to form and grow on CCNs, until gravity is strong enough for droplets to fall as rain or snow. However, too many CCNs in the air can prevent water droplets or ice crystals from growing large enough to fall as precipitation (rain or snow), contributing to often thick "haze" or "smog").

Dust/aerosols in the atmosphere Smog in NYC in the 1970s
Fig. 8-15. Smog in NYC in the 1970s. Air pollution from human activity is an increasing source of CCNs in the atmosphere. Smoke from manufacturing, vehicles (particularly deisel-burning trucks), coal-burning power plants, and construction dust are significant sources. Efforts to regulate CCNs have helped reduce smog in the US, but what about China?
Fig. 8-13. Dust from desert regions is a major source of CCNs. See Atmospheric aerosol/dust video (NASA) Globe version (NASA)
Natural aerosol haze from plants in the Appalachian Mountains
Fig. 8-14. Natural CCN aerosols released by plants produce the haze of the "Smoky Mountains" region of the Applachian Mountains.
NASA Atmospheric Aerosols on a globe (YouTube animation)
How does air pressure relate to weather?

Increasing “high pressure” (above 1000 millibars) corresponds with “clear, sunny weather.”
Decreasing pressure (below 1000 millibars) corresponds with “cloudy, rainy weather.”
GOES 5 satellite - Atmospheric Winds
NASA YouTube video

Highest barometric pressure (record):
1084 millibars (32.01 inches of mercury)
Agata, northern Siberia, on December 31, 1968.
The weather was clear and very cold at the time, with temperatures between -40° and -58°
Lowest barometric pressure (record):
870 millibars (25.69 inches of mercury)
West of Guam (Pacific Ocean) on October 12, 1979 In the eye of Super Typhoon Tip which involved wind speeds of 165 knots (305 km/h; 190 mph).

Why does San Diego have the best weather in the US?

Highest air pressure: 1033 millibars (February, 1883)
Lowest air pressure: 987 millibars (January, 2010)

This is the lowest range in the United States! (46 mb) !


Weather” is the state of the atmosphere at any place and time in regards to "conditions:" sunshine, heat, dryness, cloud cover, wind, precipitation (rain, sleet, snow, hail), etc.


Clouds form when the invisible water vapor in the air condenses into visible water droplets or ice crystals.
The dew point is when the relative humidity reaches 100%. The base of a cloud marks the boundary where relative humidity has reached saturation. Cloud tops can rise until they encounter warmer air in the stratosphere. There they stop rising and spread out forming anvil-shaped thunderheads shapes (Figure 8-16).

4 general types of clouds (there are many sub-types)
Cirro-form: high level "wispy - fair weather" clouds if ice crystals, typically above 20,000 ft (6000 m)
Cumulo-form: low to high level "cotton-like puffy clouds" with flat base at 100% humidity level, can rise to 60,000 feet.
Nimbo-form: "rain clouds" (low to mid level) - clouds typical thicken and lower as precipitation begins.
Strato-form. uniform flat cloud layer at any level, forms fog at the surface (coastal "marine layer" an example)

Names of clouds can include combinations of forms as they change. For instance, a small cumulus cloud can build up and become an altocumulus cloud, before becoming a cumulonimbus (thunderstorm) that can develop a high avil-shaped top. Figure 8-17 illustrates common forms of clouds. Also see Types of Clouds (NOAA National Weather Services - Image gallery of clouds and cloud-related phenomena).

Cloud base and top of thunderhead
Fig. 8-16. Cloud base and tops of a thunderstorm (cumulonimbus)
Cloud types
Fig. 8-17. Common types of clouds.

Weather Fronts

A weather front is a boundary separating two masses of air of different densities (Figure 8-18). Fronts are classified as to which type of air mass (cold or warm) is replacing the other. A cold front forms along the leading edge of a cold air mass displacing a warmer (less dense) air mass. Cold fronts are typically narrow bands of showers and thunderstorm.

A warm front is the leading edge of a warmer air mass replacing (riding up and over) a colder air mass. If the front is essentially not moving (i.e. the air masses are not moving) it is called a stationary front. Warm fronts typically have a gentle slope so the air rising along the frontal surface is gradual. This configurations results in widespread Strato-form cloud layers with precipitation near the rear of the frontal boundary.
Weather Fronts
Fig. 8-18. Weather fronts between air masses: cold fronts and warm fronts.

How do you say which way is the wind blowing?

We name wind direction based on which direction it is coming from (from high pressure to low pressure). For instance, if the wind is moving off the Pacific Ocean directly onto the land in California we call it a "west wind." The direction of wind is named for the direction it is coming from, not in the direction that it is moving towards.

Weather and Climates

Weather is localized conditions in the short term (hours - weeks).
is the prevailing weather conditions in an area in general or over a long period (years, decades, etc.).

Climates are controlled by both geographic factors and regional weather patterns. Different regions (climates) typically have seasonal cycles. For instance, the Eastern United States typically has 4 seasons and have frequent weather fronts between polar air masses from Canada and tropical air masses from the Gulf and Atlantic regions.In contrast, California typically has 2 seasons, summers are dry and winters have short rainy periods. Patterns in weather repeat each year and are typically consistent and predictable. Examples include "monsoons" in India and the US Desert Southwest, Hurricane season in the tropics, etc.

History shows that climates change. The time spans for changes can range in cycles ranging from years and decades to centuries and millennia. Droughts can start an last for years. Desertification (such as what is happening in Africa) has been progressing for centuries. Parts of the world experienced "Mini-Ice Age" conditions between the 13th and 19th centuries. Climate change has impacted civilizations throughout recorded history. A classic example is illustrated in the history of the Chaco Culture in the US Desert Southwest. See more climate cycle times and events in history on NOAA's Paleoclimatology website).

California's precipitation and climates are controlled by geography
Fig. 8-19. California's weather and climate is influenced by geography and regional prevailing conditions.
Chaco Culture
See NOAA's Climate Change Impacts website - timelines with many links and animations.
Fig. 8-20. Chaco Canyon in New Mexico was at the center of a regional 13th century society impacted by climate change.

Climate Variability

California's current drought is an example of climate variability (Figure 8-21). Climate not only vary on a seasonal and annual basis, but there are larger scale fluctuations that impact different regions of the world. One is the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) (discussed in more detail in the next chapter). Because the atmosphere is an open system, changes in one region can affect other surrounding regions. Regions that may experience dry conditions for decades may suddenly have a severe rain period, or regions that are typically wet can sustain drought. Likewise, regional temperature average can swing through cyclic periods. Some of these changes can be progressive and represent long term changes. For instance, during the last ice age, Southern California was very wet, and large lakes filled many of the intermountain basins. By about 5,000 years ago, the lakes dried up as the climate changed, then they returned as wet conditions returned for periods of time. The last major drying period was about 500 years ago, as recorded by the evidence of indian village sites associated with fishing on the shores of SoCal lakes that now are mostly barren desert. See a website on Climate Variability (NASA).
California's drought cycles
Fig. 8-21. California's cycles of drought and wet periods is an example of climate variability.
Effects of uneven heating of Earth by the Sun

The amount of energy Earth receives from the sun is not evenly distributed (Figure 8-22). More solar energy (per unit area) is delivered to the equator than near the poles.

• The equatorial regions are warmer than the poles because direct sunlight is concentrated and little is reflected.
• In polar regions, light strikes the earth at an angle; it is diffuse and much of it is reflected back into space.
• The seasonal variations (winter and summer) also affect the distribution of heating of the planet.

Solar energy by latitude
Fig. 8-22. Solar energy budget by latitude

The Coriolis Effect on Atmospheric and Ocean Circulation Systems

Heat from "insolation" (INcoming SOLar radiATION) is the driving force behind the fluid motion of the atmosphere and the oceans. However, the patterns of motion are also influenced by the forces created by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. Because air and seawater have mass, they maintain momentum when moving from a location of high pressure to low pressure. However, because the earth is rotating, the rotation causes a right-turn deflection in the Northern Hemisphere and a left-turn deflection in the Southern Hemisphere (Figure 8-23). The coriolis affect:

• Influences all moving objects, especially ones moving over large distances (such as intercontinental ballistic missiles).
• Changes direction—not speed.
• Maximum coriolis effect occurs at poles.
• No coriolis effect at equator.

Rotation of pressure systems due to the coriolis effect:

Northern Hemisphere:

• High pressure turns clockwise
• Low pressure turns counter-clockwise

Southern Hemisphere: opposite of N.H.
• High pressure turns counter-clockwise
• Low pressure turns

So... which way does the water spin in a toilet in the northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere, and on the equator?
Coriolis Effect
Fig. 8-23. The coriolis effect is cause by the rotation of the Earth on its axis. This rotation causes air masses moving from high to low pressure to deflect.

Earth's Atmospheric Circulation System

The global atmospheric circulation system influences the movement of air masses in general "wind belts" that move air in rotating masses within zones around the planet. These wind belts seem relatively stable when viewed in a long-term view (decades). However, fluctuations may occur on seasonal or annual basis. The wind belts are influenced by the coriolis effect and large-scale convection patterns in the atmosphere (Figure 8-24).

These relatively stationary wind belts impact the surface of the oceans, creating currents that circulate waters in the oceans.

Studies of the atmosphere have show that their are 3 major atmospheric systems called circulation cells (Figures 8-24 and 8-25).
World wind zones
Fig. 8-24. Global wind circulation patterns impact regional climates and drive the large current systems in the global ocean circulation system.

Circulation Cells in Earth's Atmosphere

Hadley cells (0° to 30° N and S of equator)
• Responsible for the Trade Winds: They blow NE in N. Hemisphere and SE in S. Hemisphere.

Ferrel cells
(30° to 60° N and S of equator)
• Responsible for the Prevailing Westerlies in both hemispheres.

Polar cells
(60° to 90° N and S)
• Responsible for the Polar Easterlies in both hemispheres.
Circulation cells in the Atmosphere
Fig. 8-25. Hadley, Ferrel, and Polar circulation cells in Earth's atmosphere redistribute convectional heat.

What is the "Jet Stream?"

A “jet stream” is a narrow, variable band of very strong winds in the upper troposphere. They are predominantly westerly air currents encircling the globe several miles above the Earth. There are typically two or three jet streams in each of the northern and southern hemispheres. These high-speed wind currents often move at speeds exceeding 250 miles (400 km) per hour at altitudes of 6 to 9 miles (10 to 15 km). Jet streams are influenced by moving air masses and the coriolis effect causing them to meander and sometime split. See the location of the jet streams in Figures 8-25 and 8-26.
Polar and tropical jet streams
Fig. 8-26. Polar and Subtropical jet streams

Equatorial Doldrums and Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ)

The equatorial doldrums are associated with the inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ) the region that circles the Earth near the equator, where the trade winds of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres converge (Figure 8-27). The doldrums are:

• Area of low atmospheric pressure with lots of rain.
• Located on equator where there is least influence of the coriolis effect.
• Low wind area with calms, sudden storms, and light unpredictable winds

Seasonal shifts in the location of the ITCZ affects rainfall in many equatorial regions, resulting in the wet and dry seasons of the tropics rather than the cold and warm seasons of higher latitudes. The ITCZ moves north during winter in the northern hemisphere and south in the summer.
Intertropical convergence zone
Fig. 8-27. The doldrums are the belt of clouds along inter-tropical convergence zone. This belt of clouds (with lots of rain) migrates north and south across the equator with the seasons.

Horse Latitudes

The "horse latitudes" are belts of calm air and sea occurring in both the northern and southern hemispheres between the trade winds and the westerlies (roughly 30-38 degrees north and south of the equator). Horse latitudes separate the Hadley and Ferrel Cells. It is a region also called the subtropical high—a belt of very dry because of high pressure, little rain. Horse latitudes roughly correspond with major desert regions of the world. The horse latitudes got it name from historic legends describe ships becoming becalmed when crossing the Horse Latitudes and running out of water and unable to re supply. Sailors would throw horses on the ships overboard.

Horse latitudes
Fig. 8-28. Location of the horse latitudes (subtropical highs).

Weather data animations:

Global atmospheric circulation video - High Speed Weather—Satellite Infrared of the entire globe (NASA data)

See animations current data from NASA Global Geostationary Weather Satellite (GOES weather satellite).

Current San Diego Weather Radar
( - this website provides current weather radar conditions for local, state, regional, and national scales with looping animations.

Global weather animation (infrared)
Fig. 8-29. Weather satellite data animation.

The Coriolis Effect Influences Superstorms

Large rotating storms are called hurricanes (near North America), typhoons (near Southeast Asia) and cyclones (in the Indian Ocean). All are the same, caused by warm moist winds being drawn to the center of low pressure near the center of the storm (called the "eye" in well developed storms). North of the equator the coriolis effect causes low-atmospheric pressure to rotate counterclockwise, but south of the equator they rotate in a clockwise direction. The lower the air pressure in the eye of the storm, the greater the wind speed and rotation. Note on the map in Figure 8-30 that there are no hurricanes along the equator or near the poles. These are regions where the coriolis effect is not a significant force in deflecting storm winds to cause rotation.

Superstorms not only can cause major wind damage and flooding, but can erode and redeposit vast quantities of sediments, both offshore and onshore, heavily impacting impacting both communities and ecosystems.
Storm paths of Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones
Fig.8-30. World map showing historic paths of hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones. The large storms are the same (different names for different regions); storm rotation is influenced by the coriolis effect.

Tropical Cyclones

Tropical cyclones are large rotating air masses with low atmospheric pressure (Figure 8-31).

Northern Hemisphere Example:

• Storms Intensify over warm water (>77 degrees F); warm water provides water vapor.
• Water vapor provides fuel for storm in the form of latent heat energy as water vapor condenses.
• Storms die over land and cool water.
• High winds, tornados occur near storm center and along "feeder bands."
• Sea level can rise in front of storm called a “storm surge.”
• Classified by maximum sustained wind speed (see "rating storms" below).
• Hurricanes and other storms rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere.

Atlantic hurricane
Fig. 8-31. Superstorms like Hurricane Andrew (1992) was for a time a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of 175 mph (280 km/h).
Ratings storms (by maximum sustained wind speed)
Tropical depression (<38 mph)
Tropical storm (between 38 and 74 mph)
Tropical cyclone (>74 mph)
• Tropical cyclones are called Hurricanes (N or S America) or Typhoons (Western Pacific)

Saffir-Simpson Scale
: 5 categories of hurricane intensity based upon wind speed (see NOAA website)
• Category 1 is from 74 to 96 mph
• Category 2 is from 96 to 110 mph
• Category 3 is from 111 to 130 mph - level considered a "superstorm" (Katrina, 2005)
• Category 4 is from 130 to 155 mph (examples: Andrew, 1992, Hugo, 1989)
• Category 5 is >155 mph (Camille, 1969)

Naming storms:
Alphabetical lists of names are assigned each year to storms that develop in each of the ocean basins. Names of notoriously damaging storms are "retired" to remind people of their impacts and legacy.

Hurricane Katrina
Fig. 8-32. The eye of a hurricane is the center of low pressure. Hurricane Katrina (2005) shown here, was the most costly and destructive hurricane disaster in US history, killing more than 1,800 people.

What is the Greenhouse Effect?

The greenhouse effect is the trapping of the sun's warmth in a Earth’s lower atmosphere. This happens because lower atmosphere due to the greater transparency of the atmosphere to visible radiation from the sun than to thermal infrared radiation emitted from the surface (Figure 8-33). A glass green house will let sunlight in, but captures some of the thermal energy within the enclosed interior. A greenhouse gas is any gas that absorbs and emits energy in the thermal infrared range. Primary greenhouse gases in earth's atmosphere include: water vapor (H2O), carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), and ozone (O3).
The greenhouse effect.
Fig. 8-33. The greenhouse effect is enhanced by the presence of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

Global Warming and Earth's Greenhouse

Earth is currently growing warmer at an alarming rate! The weather records compiled from around the world indicated that there has been a significant rise in global temperatures over the past century. This rise in temperature is linked to the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere (Figure 8-34). The rise in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a result of consumption of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other human impacts since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.

Figure 8-35 compares the rise in atmospheric CO2 to the decrease in the ratio of stable carbon isotope 13C/12C.
The cyclic patterns in the graph is a result of the annual growth of plants in the northern hemisphere. During the summer months plant growth consumes CO2, reducing CO2 concentrations in the air. In the winter months the decay of organic matter increases CO2 concentrations. The overall trend shows that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 is increasing. The cyclic pattern in the 13C/12C also reflects the plant-growth cycles, but also shows the dilution of 13C concentrations by the influx of carbon from fossil fuels. Carbon in fossil fuels (coal and oil) are enriched in12C.

There are many "knowns" and "unknowns" about the future of global warming (aspects are discussed in following chapter). Highlights include sea level rise, climate changes, changes in storm intensity and regional precipitation, changes in air and ocean chemistry (acidification), and other impacts on humanity and natural ecosystems.

Select resources about Carbon's role in the global environment:
Atmospheric Carbon Tracker Animation (NOAA)
The Carbon Cycle (NASA)
Environmental consequences of ocean acidification (United Nations)

Camparison of carbon dioxide concentrations to global temperature changes
Fig. 8-34. Changes in global temperature with the rise in atmospheric CO2.
Greenhouse trends of carbon dioxide and carbon-13
Fig. 8-35. Changes in atmospheric 13C/12C concentrations.

Atmospheres on Other Planets

The processes affecting Earth's atmosphere can also be seen on other planets. For instance, Jupiter, a planet about 318 times more massive than Earth has similar atmospheric "zones" and "bands" (Figure 8-36). On Jupiter, the "bright zones" are regions of rising cloud tops, and the "dark zones" are regions of sinking air. Bright spots are massive cyclones (some are larger than planet Earth!). Jupiter's upper atmosphere is composed of hydrogen, helium, and has clouds composed of ammonia ice crystals (NH3).
Fig. 8-36. Jupiter
Chapter 8 quiz questions 1/1/2016