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The World Revs its Heat Engine

Full Description: Absorption of solar energy heats up our planet's surface and atmosphere making life for us possible. But the energy carnot stay bound up in the Earth's environment forever. If it did, the Earth would be as hot as the sun. Instead, as the surface and atmosphere warm, they emit thermal long wave radiation, some of which escapes into space and allows the Earth to cool. This false color image of the Earth was produced by the Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System (CERES) instrument flying aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft. The image shows where more or less heat, in the form of long-wave radiation, is emanating from the top of the Earth's atmosphere. As one can see in the image, the thermal radiation leaving the oceans is fairly uniform. The blue swaths represent thick clouds, the tops of which are so high they are among the coldest places on Earth. In the American Southwest, which can be seen in the upper right hand corner of the globe, there is often little cloud cover to block outgoing radiation and relatively little water to absorb solar energy making the amount of outgoing radiation in this area exceeding that of the oceans. Recently, NASA researchers discovered that incoming solar radiation and outgoing thermal radiation increased in the tropics from the 1980s to the 1990s. They believe the unexpected change has to do with apparent change in circulation patterns around the globe, which effectively reduce the amount of water vapor and cloud cover in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Without the clouds, more sunlight was allowed to enter the tropical zones and more thermal energy was allowed to leave. The findings may have big implications for climate change and future global warming. (Image courtesy NASA Goddard)


UID: SPD-MARSH-0300805

September 30, 2001

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Taken on September 30, 2001