Energy released from the Sun is emitted as shortwave light and ultraviolet energy.
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When it reaches the Earth, some is reflected back to space by clouds, some is absorbed by the atmosphere, and some is absorbed at the Earth's surface. However, since the Earth is much cooler than the Sun, its radiating energy is much weaker long wavelength infrared energy.
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We can indirectly see this energy radiate into the atmosphere as heat, rising from a hot road, creating shimmers on hot sunny days. The earth-atmosphere energy balance is achieved as the energy received from the Sun balances the energy lost by the Earth back into space. In this way, the Earth maintains a stable average temperature and therefore a stable climate.
Using units of energy from the sun as a baseline the energy balance is as follows:. The absorption of infrared radiation trying to escape from the Earth back to space is particularly important to the global energy balance.
Energy absorption by the atmosphere stores more energy near its surface than it would if there was no atmosphere. This heating effect is called the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse warming is enhanced during nights when the sky is overcast.
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- Air pollution under clear skies reduces sunlight reaching the Earth's surface.
Clouds keep Earth cool by reflecting sunlight, but they can also serve as blankets to trap warmth. Separately, satellite data recently showed that while the difference between high and low clouds had long been steady at percent, in the past five years, for some unknown reason, the difference has jumped to 13 percent.
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High, warming clouds have increased while low clouds have decreased. Research shows condensation trails, or contrails from jet airplanes , fuel more high-altitude clouds.
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But they have not been shown to account for all the observed change. Earth's albedo appears to have experienced a similar reversal during a period running from the s to the mids.
Goode's team says there may be a large, unexplained variation in sunlight reaching the Earth that changes over the course of two decades or so, as well as a large effect of clouds re-arranging by altitude. How do the findings play into arguments about global warming and the apparent contribution by industrial emissions? That's entirely unclear.
The question is, 'Are there other things going on?