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Thread: AGW Greenhouse effect: How does it work?

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    AGW Greenhouse effect: How does it work?

    AGW Greenhouse effect: How does it work? Can anyone explain it in layman's terms and clarify the confusion I encounter when considering this question?

    A little history to this question. When trying to verify some numbers in a discussion with an AGW denier (not on BAUT), I was told that the numbers didn't really matter because the greenhouse effect wasn't relevant. When I pressed for details, he indicated that since I didn't have the math/science background required, it was hard to explain and I might do well to read this paper. Of course except for editorial/accusation/conclusion parts, the paper was beyond me. I posted it in the science section of BAUT to see if anyone here could confirm or deny the information there. I was inactive in BAUT for a while and in that time, the thread got sidetracked, split, moved, and locked without my getting any meaningful answers, so I'm trying again... this time as a specific question.

    In that thread, it was pointed out that the 'greenhouse' term is not relevant even for a greenhouse. As pointed out in the paper referenced, the temperature in a greenhouse is not affected much regardless if the 'glass' does or does not absorb IR radiation.

    As I understand it, the global 'greenhouse effect' occurs because there are gases that are transparent to sun radiation but absorb the IR radiation from the earth. It is the radiative heating of those gases (mostly H2O & CO2 comprising of about 1% of the total) and the subsequent conductive transfer of that heat to the rest of the atmosphere that is responsible for keeping our planet from being a frozen ball. This seems counter intuitive to me.

    Assuming that 99% of the atmosphere is transparent to radiation, then the only way that 99% of the atmosphere can be heated is by conduction. I see convection as just a way to enhance the ability of gas to heat by conduction, not a vehicle to actually transfer heat. Even the greenhouse gases will be heated by conduction when in contact with a warmer surface or gas.

    I guess what I don't understand is how the influence of the conduction transfer of heat of the entire planet surface is significantly altered by 1% of the gas in the atmosphere because it absorbs some of the earth radiation. It seems like the 'blanket' effect would be provided by the 99% of the gases that doesn't radiate the heat away but only loses its heat by conduction.

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    What is AGW?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Hornblower View Post
    What is AGW?
    AGW: Anthropogenic Global Warming (FreeDictionary)
    0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 1 0 0 1 1 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 ...
    Skepticism enables us to distinguish fancy from fact, to test our speculations. --Carl Sagan

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    The greenhouse gases absorb and re-radiate the infrared produced by the Earth. Some of that re-radiated IR is absorbed by the Earth, and has to be re-re-radiated. And so on. Those extra IR photons bouncing between atmosphere and Earth are what raises the local temperature.

    I have an analogy with tennis, which I've used before:
    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Here's an analogy that might be helpful, if people are still having difficulty with the "excess" energy budget at the Earth's surface. It involves a tennis game in which each tennis ball is a "package" of solar energy, fired into the game by one of those automatic ball cannons (which represents the sun).

    I'm the Earth. I set up the cannon at the far end of the court to launch four balls a minute in my direction, which I then return across the net. So now I'm in "thermal equilibrium" with those four balls a minute: I'm "radiating" as many balls as I'm receiving.
    Now you step up to the far side of the net. You're an atmosphere containing greenhouse gases, and you're intent on returning half my balls to me. So when I lob four over the net, you return two and let two pass.
    Aargh! Now I need to deal with six balls a minute: four fresh ones from the cannon/sun, and two old ones returned by you/the atmosphere. I adjust to a new thermal equilibrium with that six-ball workload.
    In that first minute, only two balls get out of our game (the two you let go past). So that's four in, two out: as a whole, our game is not in equilibrium, because it emits fewer balls than it receives from the cannon/sun, and those missing balls account for my increased workload/temperature.
    But it doesn't stop there: of the two balls you returned to me, and which I've now returned to you, you must knock back one. So of the total six balls I dealt with, you intercept three and send them back; three others escape the game. (The game has just retained another ball, since the cannon/sun emitted four balls in the time it took those three to escape.)
    In the next minute I have seven balls to deal with: four from the cannon/sun, three returns from you. I reestablish another, even hotter equilibrium state.
    Now our whole game also achieves equilibrium, because you can't return half a ball to me, to precisely halve the seven balls I knock over the net.
    We settle down into a game in which every minute I receive four fresh balls from the cannon/sun, and three returns from you/the atmosphere. You intercept three of my seven balls and return them, and let four go past: four in, four out.

    From the outside, our game is in equilibrium with a "warm" four balls a minute. Inside the game, I'm sweating my way through seven balls a minute (I'm hot), and you're working on three balls a minute (you're cool).
    The extra three balls that are sustaining our workload were absorbed into the game during a transient disequilibrium when the greenhouse effect kicked in. (And of course, they're not always the same three balls.)
    Ken G subsequently pointed out that:
    Quote Originally Posted by Ken G View Post
    And even if you can return half a ball, the infinite sum converges to 8 instead of 7. The way the numbers actually work out, it seems that "you" the atmosphere are returning 3/4 of the balls that "Grant" the Earth is hitting over the net.
    The fraction the atmosphere returns is of course smaller than in my analogy, but the principle is the same.

    Grant Hutchison

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    What G&T get right is that the atmospheric greenhouse effect isn't what mainly causes real greenhouses to be warm.

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    The wikipedia article is a decent introduction:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_effect

    Their article on global warming is also decent:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    I have an analogy with tennis, which I've used before:
    I was hoping for something more definitive than a analogy as most analogies have flaws. Perhaps it gives a visual of the dynamics, but as I see it, after the first 12 hours, the cannon shuts down for 12 hours to reload. In the first minute the last eight balls are returned; the second minute, four; the third minute, two; the fourth minute, the last one. If we split the ball, the fraction becomes very small in the first hour. That allows 11 more hours to find any stray balls lying around and get rid of them as well.

    I don't see where conduction plays a part in this analogy. I was hoping that someone would know the relationship of heat loss by radiation and the transference by conduction. I see the 99% of non greenhouse gases not losing its heat as rapidly as the greenhouse gases and thereby accounting for most of the cause of atmosphere keeping the earth from freezing.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    I was hoping for something more definitive than a analogy as most analogies have flaws.
    So you want layman's terms without analogy?
    I wish you luck.

    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    I don't see where conduction plays a part in this analogy.
    Well, the analogy just warmed up the Earth's surface and the greenhouse gases. Conduction warms the rest, as air molecules collide with each other and with the Earth's surface.
    Cooling takes place at night, for sure, but not for long enough to radiate all the additional energy to space (otherwise we'd get down to three kelvin every night, with or without greenhouse).

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by Ronald Brak View Post
    The wikipedia article is a decent introduction:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_effect
    Thanks for the link, but I have to admit I looked at it before and didn't find it enlightening. (Yes, I'm ignoring the link about global warming. Until I can understand what the greenhouse effect is, I'm won't be able to address global warming).

    From the first link:
    Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere by efficiently absorbing thermal infrared radiation emitted by the Earth’s surface, by the atmosphere itself, and by clouds. As a result of its warmth, the atmosphere also radiates thermal infrared in all directions, including downward to the Earth’s surface. Thus, greenhouse gases trap heat within the surface-troposphere system.[2][3][4][5] This mechanism is fundamentally different from the mechanism of an actual greenhouse, which instead isolates air inside the structure so that heat is not lost by convection and conduction, as discussed below.
    The concept of the atmosphere absorbing the heat is not new to me, but frankly, I don't see why that "mechanism is fundamentally different from the mechanism of an actual greenhouse". Both concepts have enclosed the convection and conduction heat retention, one bounded by glass, the other by the limits of the atmosphere. The experiment mentioned in the paper I linked to has shown that mechanism is not the reason the temperature significantly rises.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    So you want layman's terms without analogy?
    I wish you luck.
    ~lol~ Ah... you begin to see my problem.

    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    Well, the analogy just warmed up the Earth's surface and the greenhouse gases. Conduction warms the rest, as air molecules collide with each other and with the Earth's surface.
    Cooling takes place at night, for sure, but not for long enough to radiate all the additional energy to space (otherwise we'd get down to three kelvin every night, with or without greenhouse).
    Actually that is my point. It sounds like your analogy takes place on the moon with no atmosphere, just a shield. There is no mechanism to hold the heat once the source is gone. That is why I can't get past conduction (or insulation if you will) being the mechanism that retains atmospheric warmth.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    There is no mechanism to hold the heat once the source is gone.
    Nothing "holds the heat", apart from the heated objects themselves. An object at a given temperature radiates only a given amount of heat per second. The sheer mass of the atmosphere, the oceans and the earth prevents them losing enough heat to cool dramatically overnight.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    An object at a given temperature radiates only a given amount of heat per second. The sheer mass of the atmosphere, the oceans and the earth prevents them losing enough heat to cool dramatically overnight.
    That is my point. 99% of the atmosphere doesn't radiate much. This seems to overwhelm the effect of the 1% greenhouse gases. On top of that, much of the re-radiation from the surface isn't caught.

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    In spite of many requests, no one has yet been able come up with a sensible mainstream exposition of just how this 'enhanced greenhouse effect' works in a quantative manner that demonstrates where the claimed ~2.5°C temperature rise for 2xCO2 touted by the IPCC comes from. Until such can be demonstrated, the 'enhanced greenhouse effect' is just a much hyped hypothesis not even deserving of the label 'theory'.

    If I am wrong about this, please show me where I can find such an exposition.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    I I guess what I don't understand is how the influence of the conduction transfer of heat of the entire planet surface is significantly altered by 1% of the gas in the atmosphere because it absorbs some of the earth radiation. It seems like the 'blanket' effect would be provided by the 99% of the gases that doesn't radiate the heat away but only loses its heat by conduction.
    The sun heats the planet's surface. Most of that heat is radiated in near to far IR back into space, as most of the Earth's atomosphere is transparent to IR. Some of it, however, is not, and captures that IR, which heats the greenhouse gases via radiative heating. These heated gases then heat the non-greenhouse gases via conductive heating. The heated gases themselves (molecular-sized bits of them, anyway) convect (rise), which in trun heats more gases.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    That is my point. 99% of the atmosphere doesn't radiate much. ... On top of that, much of the re-radiation from the surface isn't caught.
    Sure. Add these components of an atmosphere to a bare planet, and its temperature won't change much. A radiative equilibrium is achieved: energy in during the day, energy out during day and night, and a mean surface temperature as a result.
    Add greenhouse gases to the mix, and the radiative equilibrium still doesn't change much when observed from the outside: same amount of energy goes in during the day, same amount of energy comes out during day and night, and the equilibrium temperature of the high atmosphere remains the same.
    But inside the atmosphere, my tennis match is now going on, with photons batting back and forth between the greenhouse gases and the ground. That raises the temperature of the ground and lower atmosphere, above the equilibrium that would be achieved if all the photons just radiated straight back out to space.

    Grant Hutchison

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    In spite of many requests, no one has yet been able come up with a sensible mainstream exposition of just how this 'enhanced greenhouse effect' works in a quantative manner that demonstrates where the claimed ~2.5°C temperature rise for 2xCO2 touted by the IPCC comes from. Until such can be demonstrated, the 'enhanced greenhouse effect' is just a much hyped hypothesis not even deserving of the label 'theory'.

    If I am wrong about this, please show me where I can find such an exposition.
    Well I'll give you a quick one. Take a tube with a thin plastic window at each end and fill it with air. Then send a beam of infrared radiation through the plastic windows. Very little of the infrared energy will be absorbed by the air. Most of it will pass through the windows without being absorbed by the air and causing the temperature to rise. But if you do the same thing when the tube is filled with carbon dioxide, you will find that the carbon dioxide will absorb much more of the infrared radiation than the plain air did and as a result the carbon dioxide will become warmer than the air. If you were to take a tube full of air and slowly increase the amount of carbon dioxide in it, you would also slowly increase the amount of infrared energy that would be absorbed and slowly increase the temperature. That's what's happening with our atmosphere as we increase the amount of CO2.

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    Thanks for the link ggchuck by the way. I'm a quarter of the way through it, it's been an interesting read so far. Some of it is over my head of course

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    It's not enough to look at just IR. Rather, we must look at both the influx and eflux histograms across all wavelengths of radiative energy (examples only - not real):

    Influx:
    Band
    1+
    2++
    3++++
    4+++++
    5+++

    Eflux:
    Band
    1+++
    2+++
    3++++
    4++++
    5+

    Put another way, for a barren rock orbiting the sun, after a very long time, the rock reaches a sort of homeostasis where the influx of energy from all wavelengths will equal the eflux of energy from all wavelengths. The incoming distribution of wavelengths isn't the same as the outgoing, as many wavelengths are not reflected, but are instead absorbed and transformed into a different type of energy such as thermal or chemical. For thermal, the energy is re-radiated immediately, but in a different frequency band, in this case, far to near IR. For chemical, the energy may be stored for millennia, or even, for all practical purposes, forever.

    Radiation that's reflected can be purely reflected (the same frequency) or it can be both upchanneled (higher frequency) and downchanneled) lower frequency. Microwaves heating water which in turn radiates heat (IR) is an example of upchanneling. UV radiation causing certain chemicals to flouresce is an example of downchanneling.

    Furthermore, a planet's atmosphere behaves in much the same way, but has an additional property - it's translucent. That is, it may be transparent to some frequencies, opaque to others, and scattering to yet a third group of frequencies.

    For a planet like the Earth, this process has reached a sort of equilibrium. It's the reason why we're the temperature we are today. But if the composition of the gases changes, or the influx histogram changes (either in terms of composition or overall energy), it may upset the equlibrium.

    You wrote:
    As I understand it, the global 'greenhouse effect' occurs because there are gases that are transparent to sun radiation but absorb the IR radiation from the earth. It is the radiative heating of those gases (mostly H2O & CO2 comprising of about 1% of the total) and the subsequent conductive transfer of that heat to the rest of the atmosphere that is responsible for keeping our planet from being a frozen ball. This seems counter intuitive to me.
    Why? Let's simplify this and say that there are no greenhouse gases, and that 100% of the influx is reflected off the planet's surface. The planet will reach equilibrium at a temperature, x.

    Now, let's say that the planet's atmosphere absorbs just 10% of of the radiation passing through. That means that 90% of the radiation reaches the surface. And the atmosphere also absorbs 10% of the re-radiated energy, so that only 81% makes it all the way back out. Thus, for a 10% absorption rate, 19% of the total energy is actually absorbed.

    Now - let's increase the absorption rate by a mere 1% and see what happens:

    89% makes it to the surface, and 79.21% makes it back out. Thus, instead of absorbing 19%, the 1% increase results in 20.79% being absorbed.

    That's a 9.42% increase in absorption!

    Fortunately, our planet's environment, particularly it's temperature, is self-stabilizing, or dynamically stable. That is, in the mathematics of chaos, there's locus about which our planet's temperature tends to remain. Thus, when the mix changes which allows more heat to be retained, and the temperature rises, something changes which allows the Earth to give off more heat at a given temperature than it did before, and this dynamically stable effect prevents runaway temperatures.

    There's a misnomer out there which states, "warming increases humidity which increases clouds which reduces heating." Anyone who's been to warm, humid, and very sunny Hawaii (and other humid equitorial regions) knows this is false. Rather, it's the clash of humid air with cooler air which produces the Earth-cooling clouds, as evidenced by both fronts (thunderstorms), as well as convection cooling (tropical storms).

    But this uncovers another misnomer: clouds cause cooling. The truth is that while clouds do reflect much energy, the do so both ways. Thus, the main effect of clouds is as a dampener. Anyone who's seen desert temps drop from 110 in the day to 65 at night understands this, as cloudy days in the desert rarely produce daytime temps above 90, but if the clouds remain, the temps rarely drop below 70.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PraedSt View Post
    Thanks for the link ggchuck by the way. I'm a quarter of the way through it, it's been an interesting read so far. Some of it is over my head of course
    I hope you're taking notes - I'd be interested in comparing them when you're done (meaning, I've written enough, here, for now).

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    The summaries provided in this thread seemed pretty good.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Carl_Smith View Post
    In spite of many requests, no one has yet been able come up with a sensible mainstream exposition of just how this 'enhanced greenhouse effect' works in a quantative manner that demonstrates where the claimed ~2.5°C temperature rise for 2xCO2 touted by the IPCC comes from. Until such can be demonstrated, the 'enhanced greenhouse effect' is just a much hyped hypothesis not even deserving of the label 'theory'.

    If I am wrong about this, please show me where I can find such an exposition.
    Specific rebuttal of the paper referred to in the OP:
    Smith 2008

    Radiative forcing due to greenhouse gases:
    Myhre et al 1998

    Climate sensitivity:
    Annan 2006
    Tung 2007

    Simplified explanation:
    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php...-6-easy-steps/

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    Quote Originally Posted by dmr81 View Post
    Specific rebuttal of the paper referred to in the OP:
    Smith 2008
    Hey, excellent. I wanted to read the other side. Thanks.

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    Hi Mugs,
    Thanks for reading my stuff.

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    The sun heats the planet's surface.
    I'm with you so far.

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    Most of that heat is radiated in near to far IR back into space, as most of the Earth's atomosphere is transparent to IR. Some of it, however, is not, and captures that IR, which heats the greenhouse gases via radiative heating.
    Still with you. I've found this figure illustrative in that regard.

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    These heated gases then heat the non-greenhouse gases via conductive heating. The heated gases themselves (molecular-sized bits of them, anyway) convect (rise), which in trun heats more gases.
    Still with you, but diminished a bit because those heated greenhouse gases also heat the ground by radiation.

    What I don't have a feel for is the quantity of heat that the greenhouse gases pass to the other 99% of the atmosphere relative to the fact that the ground conducts heat to 100% of the gases and with the help of convection, the temperature difference is often significant thereby facilitating that transfer. It seems intuitive that heating of 99% of the gases by conduction is the primary reason that we are not on a frozen planet, not the partial radiative energy that the 1% is able to capture.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    I posted it in the science section of BAUT to see if anyone here could confirm or deny the information there. I was inactive in BAUT for a while and in that time, the thread got sidetracked, split, moved, and locked without my getting any meaningful answers


    I posted a link to the rebuttal paper 30 minutes after you posted the thread. Several other people pointed out the obvious flaws in your argument and you clearly saw them because you responded afterwards.

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    Quote Originally Posted by grant hutchison View Post
    ...inside the atmosphere, my tennis match is now going on, with photons batting back and forth between the greenhouse gases and the ground. That raises the temperature of the ground and lower atmosphere, above the equilibrium that would be achieved if all the photons just radiated straight back out to space.
    Many of the photons that hit the ground gets radiated back at wavelengths that are not be visible to the greenhouse gases. The figure I linked to in my reply to Mugs shows some of the details. As a side note, it also illustrates why CO2 is significant (by its position in the Planks curves at the top) even though water vapor is far more massive.

    Your tennis game still only addresses radiation. The bouncing radiation ultimately leaves the system. Though I don't have a feel how many bounces it takes for a photon to leave the earth or how fast they bounce, it appears that they should escape relatively quickly unless the heated greenhouse gas heats a non-radiating gas by conduction.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    Your tennis game still only addresses radiation. The bouncing radiation ultimately leaves the system. Though I don't have a feel how many bounces it takes for a photon to leave the earth or how fast they bounce, it appears that they should escape relatively quickly unless the heated greenhouse gas heats a non-radiating gas by conduction.
    Well, since photons are absorbed and re-emitted, it's impossible to say how quickly one photon leaves the system, since there's no continuity between the absorption and the re-emission.
    The rate at which one photon leaves the system is irrelevant, however. What matters is the extra burden of absorption and re-emission, involving many photons, which requires a higher equilibrium temperature at the Earth's surface.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    ...Let's simplify this and say that there are no greenhouse gases, and that 100% of the influx is reflected off the planet's surface. The planet will reach equilibrium at a temperature, x.
    For earth it's approximately 31% reflected (Energy budget diagram).

    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    Now, let's say that the planet's atmosphere absorbs just 10% of of the radiation passing through. That means that 90% of the radiation reaches the surface. And the atmosphere also absorbs 10% of the re-radiated energy, so that only 81% makes it all the way back out. Thus, for a 10% absorption rate, 19% of the total energy is actually absorbed.
    [My comment was flawed and I deleted it until I have a chance to re-think it]
    Last edited by ggchuck; 2008-Nov-02 at 05:52 PM. Reason: Flaw in logic deleted.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ggchuck View Post
    ... but do you have an estimate of the actual numbers? It is the scale of the greenhouse effect that I'm unsure about. So far I have seen nothing that indicates that the greenhouse effect dominant enough to be responsible for keeping the earth from freezing over.
    It's in your linked diagram: 324 W.m-2 back-radiated by greenhouse gases. Comparable to the 342 W.m-2 coming into the system from outside, in the form of solar radiation.

    Grant Hutchison

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    Quote Originally Posted by mugaliens View Post
    I hope you're taking notes - I'd be interested in comparing them when you're done (meaning, I've written enough, here, for now).
    Ha! As far as I can tell, you need several PhDs to even begin to properly understand climate; so I may be some time...

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    Quote Originally Posted by dmr81 View Post


    I posted a link to the rebuttal paper 30 minutes after you posted the thread. Several other people pointed out the obvious flaws in your argument and you clearly saw them because you responded afterwards.
    Before I became inactive, there were several exchanges in that thread. Several points were brought up that showed my ignorance of the subject and links to papers that were beyond my ability to digest. I still don't have the background to promote the validity of the OP paper nor I do have the background to relate the technical paper you offered in rebuttal.

    I never got an answer that satisfied me that was at a level I could understand. As the AGW denier I referred to in the OP indicated, without getting a degree in math and physics, I may never understand. I was hoping that someone here who does have the necessary background could address the specific questions that still bother me in a way that I would understand.

    Right now, the link you labeled "simplified" may be at the right level. It will take me a while to digest it.

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