Carbon Dioxide, the Wimp

It is pretty well-known that CO2 represents only one part in 2500 in the atmosphere. Water vapor represents one part in 40. Not only is CO2 a wimpy constituent of the atmosphere, it is also a wimpy constituent of the green house gasses.


I was looking at this Wikipedia graph of the solar spectrum for another project. It shows the bands and energy levels with notches in the radiation at sea level where greenhouse gasses absorb the incoming radiation. I took the liberty of filling the water absorption notches blue to highlight them. I highlighted CO2 green.

These very same bands operate in reverse on the earth’s reflected radiation back to space, giving us in aggregate half of our greenhouse effect. What can I say? CO2 is a wimp!

P.S. 2-21-14:

Took a notion to digitize the graph above. Scaled the red area of solar insolation to 1. The blue water absorption holes have an area of .15. The Green CO2 absorbtion area is .005. The units on the Y axis are watts per square meter. Wikipedia says “direct” sunlight reaching the surface is 1050 watts/square meter, but when you add in “indirect” it goes up to 1120. It is not clear if this extra 70 includes back radiation from the greenhouse gasses.

Let’s just call it 1120. By our ratios above we get 168 watts/square meter from water and 5.6 watts/square meter from CO2. Together they amount to 174 watts/square meter absorbed by “top down” radiation. This absorption warms the atmosphere.

When you look closely at the graph that some of the bites out of the spectrum by greenhouse gasses go all the way to zero and some do not. When you point a meter at the sky and some light gets through in a green house band the band is saturated and allowing some photons through. It is also reflected photons. Your meter can’t tell the difference. When your meter reads zero in a band,  you have a black hole kicking gas and taking names.

This is where the incoming greenhouse effect is really strong. The H2O bites around 1300 and 1900 microns are not saturated. Carbon dioxide is.

This entry was posted in Climate, Global Warming, Optical Material Properties and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Carbon Dioxide, the Wimp

  1. Pingback: Everyone Loves Lists, Should We Worry or Not? | geosciencebigpicture

  2. Deborah Alexander says:

    I really appreciated the simplification of this. Have you also done this for the outgoing radiation. I was wondering if this is too hard given waters dominance and Co2, methane, and NO2 are so small?

    • gymnosperm says:

      Incoming and outgoing radiation are different animals. Incoming radiation from the sun is shorter wavelength and higher energy and tends to cause “electronic” transitions in what it hits. These are when an electron is bumped to a higher energy shell. Outgoing radiation from the earth is longer wavelength and lower energy and tends to cause rotational and vibrational transitions where the electrons stay put.

      Please see “The 2 Good Greenhouse Gas”. CO2 is not a wimp by any means in the outgoing spectrum. In fact, it is the victim of its own success.

      My apologies for the slow response. I have been preoccupied.

  3. John Bruyn says:

    Is this an exercise in globalization and uniformitarianism? I agree with what gymnosperm says about incoming radiation and with the original contention that CO2 is a wimp. Just ask yourself, how much of the global surface emits energy at the narrow band of wavelengths that CO2 absorbs in and for how much time of the day and year and then multiply that by 0.04%. After doing that you’d have to be mentally challenged to continue to believe in the AGW hoax. You can look me up on Quora to find out how astronomical influences drive climate cycle at time scales down from the Milankovic cycles.

    • gymnosperm says:

      Carbon dioxide is a wimp as regards absorption in the incoming solar radiation which this post addresses. This is good because a considerable part of incoming solar radiation is reflected back to space from clouds and dust and the surface. This reflected part passes through the atmosphere twice, both in and out.

      Carbon dioxide is not a wimp as regards outgoing earth radiation. The entire surface of the earth emits radiation in the CO2 absorption bands, and the strongest absorption in the CO2 fundamental bend sits very near the peak of the earth’s outgoing LW intensity curve.

      The reason CO2 does not control climate at any time scale despite strong absorption is that it absorbs so strongly in the fundamental bend and surrounding rotations, it saturates within a meter and adding more causes no further reduction in surface radiation to space. These bands were saturated before humans came along. Adding CO2 only causes reduction in surface radiation to space in the weak peripheral bands. Saturation in the super strong bands near the surface does NOT prevent CO2 from radiating very strongly to space from the stratosphere in these same bands. The CERES satellite sees earth radiation to space slightly increasing.

  4. James Youlton says:

    Let’s not forget that of the 1380 W/m^2 of the solar constant at the top of the atmosphere, only about 1000 W/m^2 reaches the ground. The generally overlooked answer is that water vapor refracts and reflects light across the entire solar spectrum as shown on the Wikipedia page for “rainbows”. ( When there is more water vapor in the air, less light reaches the ground. When there is a lot of water vapor, we see it as ‘clouds’ and solar panels stop producing electricity. Fewer cloudy days means higher daily highs. With the global winds slowing down, less water vapor is coming ashore.

    “Near-surface wind speeds over landmasses across the planet have dropped by as much as 25% since the 1970s, and climate scientists are taking note.”

    What is causing this? I’ll give you a hint.

    “Wind power capacity worldwide reaches 650,8 GW, 59,7 GW added in 2019”

    650.8 GW * 25% charge factor / 45% efficiency * (86400 * 365.2419) seconds per year / the total mean mass of the atmosphere (5.1480 x 10^18 kg) is 2.216 J/kg/year for the entire atmosphere.

    Have a nice day.

    • gymnosperm says:

      Interesting. So you are saying windmills are slowing the wind and warming the land? You went a bit fast for me at the end. A simple guy like me needs to know if ~2.2 J/Kg/yr is the kinetic energy we remove from the atmosphere with windmills, what is the “natural” kinetic energy of the atmosphere before windmills in the same units for comparison? Reducing the equator/pole temperature gradient also reduces winds.

      • James Youlton says:

        A wind speed of 7 m/s (15.66 mph) has 0.5 * (7^2) = 24.5 J/kg [K = 0.5 mv^2]

        Prior to wind farming, the average kinetic energy of the earth’s entire atmosphere was 131 J/kg for the northern hemisphere and 170 J/kg for the southern atmosphere. A 1993 wind survey at 50 meters listed a global average of 6.8 m/s.

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