An alarming shift has affected Earth’s fragile energy balance

(ORDO NEWS) — Our living planet is unique among all that we have been able to study in the universe to date.

Life on Earth depends on many delicately balanced, intertwined cycles that come together to create exactly the conditions we need to thrive – from an axial tilt that prevents extreme temperature changes to a “sweet spot”.

One of these cycles is the subtle energy system of the Earth – the input and output of energy received from the Sun.

This cycle dictates all planetary climate systems. On Mars, the seasonal change in energy balance – about 15.3 percent between seasons on Mars compared to 0.4 percent on Earth – is thought to be the cause of the planet’s infamous epic dust storms.

For at least some of the time, until the 1750s, this oscillatory energy cycle on Earth was relatively balanced. But now we have created an imbalance that has recently doubled in just 15 years.

“The net energy imbalance is calculated by looking at how much heat is absorbed from the Sun and how much can be radiated back into space,” explains atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

“While it is not possible to directly measure the imbalance, the only practical way to assess it is through an inventory of changes in energy.”

Trenbert and Chinese Academy of Sciences atmospheric physicist Lijing Cheng analyzed data from all components of the climate system: land, ice, ocean and atmosphere from 2000 to 2019 to make an inventory of these changes.

The Earth’s atmosphere reflects almost a quarter of the energy that hits it, unlike the Moon, which absorbs the full impact of the Sun’s energy, resulting in surface temperatures of around 100°C (212°F).

Most of this energy is then absorbed by the Moon and radiated back into space as thermal infrared radiation, better known as heat.

Again, here on Earth, this process is altered by the atmosphere. Some molecules in our atmosphere trap heat before it enters space and continue to hold it. Unfortunately for us, it’s the greenhouse gases that have actually wrapped the planet in an overly thick blanket at the top of the atmosphere.

This additional trapped energy not only changes where it ends up, but also affects the environment along the way to its final destination, the researchers explain in their work.

“It is vital to understand the net energy gain, as well as how much and where heat is being redistributed in the Earth system,” they write. “How much heat can be moved to where it can be radiated out of the Earth to limit warming?”

While everyone is mostly focused on raising the temperature, this is just one of the products of this extra energy. Only 4 percent of it goes to rising land temperatures and another 3 percent to melting ice, Trenbert and Cheng calculated.

Nearly 93 percent is absorbed by the ocean, they found, and we are already seeing backfires.

Although less than 1 percent of excess energy is circulating in our atmosphere, it is enough to directly increase the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, from droughts to floods.

However, increased atmospheric turbulence can also be beneficial.

“These weather events move energy and help the climate system get rid of energy by radiating it out into space,” the researchers explain.

Clouds and ice also help reflect solar radiation before it turns into long-wave heat that gases trap. But both reflective clouds and ice are reduced due to disruption of this energy cycle.”

Trenberth and Cheng say there is still too much missing information to create a comprehensive model of the Earth system that accurately predicts specific outcomes in the short term.

But through the use of their concept of the Earth’s energy imbalance, which takes into account every component of the Earth’s system, this task can be solved.

“Modeling the Earth’s energy imbalance is challenging, and the related observations and their synthesis need to be improved,” Cheng concludes.

“Understanding how all forms of energy are distributed around the globe and absorbed or radiated back into space will allow us to better understand our future.”


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