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10.1: How is Earth Heated

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    Differential Heating of Earth’s Surface

    If the Earth was a flat surface facing the sun, every part of that surface would receive the same amount of incoming solar radiation. However, because the Earth is a sphere, sunlight is not equally distributed over the Earth’s surface, so different regions of Earth will be heated to different degrees. This differential heating of Earth’s surface occurs for a number of reasons. First, because of the curvature of Earth, sunlight only falls perpendicularly to the surface at the center of the sphere (equatorial regions). At any other point on Earth, the angle between the surface and the incoming solar radiation is less than 90o. Because of this, the same amount of incoming solar radiation will be concentrated in a smaller area at the equator, but will be spread over a much larger area at the poles (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). Thus the tropics receive more intense sunlight and a greater amount of heating per unit of area than the polar regions.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) Because of the curvature of the Earth, the same amount of sunlight will be spread out over a larger area at the poles compared to the equator. The equator therefore receives more intense sunlight, and a greater amount of heat per unit of area (By Thebiologyprimer (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons).

    The angle at which sunlight strikes the Earth contributes to differential heating of the surface in an additional way. At the poles, because of the angle at which the solar energy strikes the surface, more of the light will glance off of the surface and the atmosphere and be reflected back into space. At the equator, the direct angle with which light reaches the surface results in more of the energy being absorbed rather than reflected. Finally, the poles reflect more solar energy than other parts of the Earth because the poles have a higher albedo. The albedo refers to reflectivity of a surface. Lighter surfaces are more reflective than darker surfaces (which absorb more energy), and therefore have a higher albedo. At the poles, the ice, snow and cloud cover create a much higher albedo, and the poles reflect more and absorb less solar energy than the lower latitudes. Through all of these mechanisms, the poles absorb much less solar radiation than equatorial regions, which is why the poles are cold and the tropics are very warm.

    But there is an interesting twist to this global distribution of heat. The tropical regions actually receive more radiant heat than they emit, and the poles emit more heat than they receive (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)).  We should therefore expect that the tropics will be getting continually warmer, while the poles become increasingly cold. Yet this is not the case; so what is happening? Rather than the heat remaining isolated near the equator, about 20% of the heat from the tropics is transported to the poles before it is emitted. This large scale transport of energy moderates the climates at both extremes. The mechanisms for this heat transfer are ocean and atmospheric circulation, the topic of the next section.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) The balance between heat gain and heat loss as a function of latitude. Excess heat received near the equator is transferred towards the poles (National Oceanography Centre (NOC). Creative Commons 3.0 unported license).

    The idea of differential heating of the Earth’s surface is fundamental to understanding a wide range of oceanographic and atmospheric processes. This differential heating leads to atmospheric convection, which creates winds, which blow over the water and create waves and surface currents, and these currents influence nutrient distribution, which promotes primary production, which then supports the rest of the ocean ecosystem. So there’s a lot riding on the simple fact that more light reaches the tropics than the poles!