‘To heat a planetary surface’ for dummies; Part 5b

If there were no atmosphere on top of our solar-heated terrestrial surface, then Earth’s mean global surface temperature would likely be about 80 degrees lower than what it actually is (209 rather than 289K). And this would be in spite of the fact that in this case the solar heat input to the global surface would be almost 80% larger on average (296 rather than 165 W/m2).

Much of this cooling of the mean would simply come as a result of greatly amplified temperature swings between day and night and between the seasons. The larger the planetary surface temperature amplitudes in space and time, the lower the mean global planetary surface temperature needs to be to maintain dynamic radiative equilibrium with the Sun. This is why the Moon is so cold.

So we need to get this straight: The Earth’s surface would be a much colder place without an atmosphere on top of it. Even with much more solar heat absorbed. There is no escaping this. The lunar surface is about 90K colder than ours, on average.


The short answer: It insulates the solar-heated surface.

Well, so how does it do this?

Mainly in four ways, three of which concern suppressing the effectiveness of convective cooling of the surface at a certain temperature.

Why is this important? Why convective cooling?

Consider a hypothetical single-room house. Continue reading