2011-04-11 15:06:58Advanced: Venus is not hot due to a runaway greenhouse
Chris Colose

colose@wisc...
64.188.12.126

I welcome input..., I will try to put up a basic version tomorrow

The skeptic argument: Venus is not hot because of a runaway greenhouse

What the science says: Venus very likely underwent a runaway or ‘moist’ greenhouse phase earlier in its history, and today is kept hot by a dense CO2 atmosphere.

In keeping with my recent theme of discussing planetary climate, I am revisiting a claim last year made by Steven Goddard at WUWT (here and here, and echoed by him again recently) that “the [runaway greenhouse] theory is beyond absurd,” and that it is pressure, not the greenhouse effect that keeps Venus hot.  My focus in this post is not on his alternative theory (discussed here), but to discuss Venus and the runaway greenhouse in general, as a matter of interest and education.  In keeping my skepticism fair, I’d also like to address claims (sometimes thrown out by Jim Hansen in passing by) that burning all the coal, tars, and oil could conceivably initiate a runaway on Earth.

It is worth noting that the term runaway greenhouse refers to a specific process when discussed by planetary scientists, and simply having a very hot, high-CO2 atmosphere is not it.  It is best thought of as a process that may have happened in Venus’ past (or a large number of exo-planets being discovered close enough to their host star) rather than a circumstance it is currently in.

A Tutorial of Present-Day Venus

Venus’ orbit is approximately 70% closer to the sun, which means it receives about 1/0.72 ~ 2 times more solar insolation at the top of the atmosphere than Earth.  Venus also has a very high albedo which ends up over-compensating for the distance to the sun, so the absorbed solar energy by Venus is less than that for Earth.  The high albedo can be attributed to a host of gaseous sulfur species, along with what water there is, which provide fodder for several globally encircling sulfuric acid (H2SO4) cloud decks.  SO2 and H2O are the gaseous precursor of the clouds particles; the lower clouds are formed by condensation of H2SO4 vapor, with SO2 created by photochemistry in the upper clouds. Venus’ atmosphere also has a pressure of ~92 bars, nearly equivalent to what you’d feel swimming under a kilometer of ocean.  The dense atmosphere could keep the albedo well above Earth’s even without clouds due to the high Rayleigh scattering (the effect of clouds on Venus and how they could change in time is discussed in Bullock and Grinspoon, 2001). Less than 10% of the incident solar radiation reaches the surface.

 Observations of the vapor content in the Venusian atmosphere show an extremely high heavy to light isotopic ratio (D/H) and is best interpreted as a preferential light hydrogen escape to space, while deuterium escapes less rapidly.  A lower limit of at least 100 times its current water content in the past can be inferred (e.g. Selsis et al. 2007 and references therein); how that water was lost is an issue to expore in the next section.

 The greenhouse effect on Venus is primarily caused by CO2, although water vapor and SO2 are extremely important as well.  This makes Venus very opaque throughout the spectrum (figure 1a), and since most of the radiation that makes its way out to space comes from only the very topmost parts of the atmosphere, it can look as cold as Mars from IR imagery. In reality, Venus is even hotter than the dayside of Mercury, at an uncomfortable 735 K (or ~860 F). Like Earth, Venusian clouds also generate a greenhouse effect, although they are not as good infrared absorbers/emitters as water clouds.  However, the concentrated sulfuric acid droplets can scatter infrared back to the surface, generating an alternative form of the greenhouse effect that way.  In the dense Venusian CO2 atmosphere, pressure broadening from collisions and the presence of a large number of absorption features unimportant on modern Earth can come into play (figure 1b), which means quick and dirty attempts by Goddard to extrapolate the logarithmic dependence between CO2 and radiative forcing make little sense.  The typical Myhre et al (1998) equation which suggests every doubling of CO2 reduces the outgoing flux at the tropopause by ~4 W/m2, although even for CO2 concentration typical of post-snowball Earth states this can be substantially enhanced.  Fig. 1b allso shows that CO2 is not "saturated" as some skeptics argue.

 

2011-04-11 15:08:19Advanced: Venus is not hot due to a runaway greenhouse
Chris Colose

colose@wisc...
64.188.12.126

I welcome input..., I will try to put up a basic version tomorrow

The skeptic argument: Venus is not hot because of a runaway greenhouse

What the science says: Venus very likely underwent a runaway or ‘moist’ greenhouse phase earlier in its history, and today is kept hot by a dense CO2 atmosphere.

In keeping with my recent theme of discussing planetary climate, I am revisiting a claim last year made by Steven Goddard at WUWT (here and here, and echoed by him again recently) that “the [runaway greenhouse] theory is beyond absurd,” and that it is pressure, not the greenhouse effect that keeps Venus hot.  My focus in this post is not on his alternative theory (discussed here), but to discuss Venus and the runaway greenhouse in general, as a matter of interest and education.  In keeping my skepticism fair, I’d also like to address claims (sometimes thrown out by Jim Hansen in passing by) that burning all the coal, tars, and oil could conceivably initiate a runaway on Earth.

It is worth noting that the term runaway greenhouse refers to a specific process when discussed by planetary scientists, and simply having a very hot, high-CO2 atmosphere is not it.  It is best thought of as a process that may have happened in Venus’ past (or a large number of exo-planets being discovered close enough to their host star) rather than a circumstance it is currently in.

A Tutorial of Present-Day Venus

Venus’ orbit is approximately 70% closer to the sun, which means it receives about 1/0.72 ~ 2 times more solar insolation at the top of the atmosphere than Earth.  Venus also has a very high albedo which ends up over-compensating for the distance to the sun, so the absorbed solar energy by Venus is less than that for Earth.  The high albedo can be attributed to a host of gaseous sulfur species, along with what water there is, which provide fodder for several globally encircling sulfuric acid (H2SO4) cloud decks.  SO2 and H2O are the gaseous precursor of the clouds particles; the lower clouds are formed by condensation of H2SO4 vapor, with SO2 created by photochemistry in the upper clouds. Venus’ atmosphere also has a pressure of ~92 bars, nearly equivalent to what you’d feel swimming under a kilometer of ocean.  The dense atmosphere could keep the albedo well above Earth’s even without clouds due to the high Rayleigh scattering (the effect of clouds on Venus and how they could change in time is discussed in Bullock and Grinspoon, 2001). Less than 10% of the incident solar radiation reaches the surface.

 Observations of the vapor content in the Venusian atmosphere show an extremely high heavy to light isotopic ratio (D/H) and is best interpreted as a preferential light hydrogen escape to space, while deuterium escapes less rapidly.  A lower limit of at least 100 times its current water content in the past can be inferred (e.g. Selsis et al. 2007 and references therein); how that water was lost is an issue to expore in the next section.

 The greenhouse effect on Venus is primarily caused by CO2, although water vapor and SO2 are extremely important as well.  This makes Venus very opaque throughout the spectrum (figure 1a), and since most of the radiation that makes its way out to space comes from only the very topmost parts of the atmosphere, it can look as cold as Mars from IR imagery. In reality, Venus is even hotter than the dayside of Mercury, at an uncomfortable 735 K (or ~860 F). Like Earth, Venusian clouds also generate a greenhouse effect, although they are not as good infrared absorbers/emitters as water clouds.  However, the concentrated sulfuric acid droplets can scatter infrared back to the surface, generating an alternative form of the greenhouse effect that way.  In the dense Venusian CO2 atmosphere, pressure broadening from collisions and the presence of a large number of absorption features unimportant on modern Earth can come into play (figure 1b), which means quick and dirty attempts by Goddard to extrapolate the logarithmic dependence between CO2 and radiative forcing make little sense.  The typical Myhre et al (1998) equation which suggests every doubling of CO2 reduces the outgoing flux at the tropopause by ~4 W/m2, although even for CO2 concentration typical of post-snowball Earth states this can be substantially enhanced.  Fig. 1b allso shows that CO2 is not "saturated" as some skeptics argue.