UPDATE: Initial version of this post used diatomic gas equation for the compression of CO2. Have now corrected this oversight, and find that our estimate of Venus's surface temperature is much improved.
One of our readers suggested we consider the atmosphere of Venus. What a good idea. Let's see how well we can estimate Venus's surface temperature using our understanding of atmospheric convection and the greenhouse effect.
According to Wikipedia, Venus's tropopause is at an altitude of 65 km with temperature 243 K (−30°C) and pressure 10 kPa. The surface pressure, meanwhile, is almost a thousand times greater: 9,300 kPa, which is ninety-three times the surface pressure on Earth. Venus's atmosphere is made up almost entirely of CO2, but also contains 150 ppm of SO2 (sulfur dioxide), and this SO2 condenses into liquid droplets so that the atmosphere below the tropopause is filled with pale yellow clouds.
Venus reflects 90% of incident sunlight (it's Bond Albedo is 0.90). The remaining 10% is absorbed. We're not sure what fraction of the Sun's light reaches the surface of Venus, but our guess is 1%. The SO2 clouds refract and reflect light like our own clouds, but SO2 is a pale yellow liquid, not a clear liquid, and will absorb sunlight eventually.
According to Schriver et al., even a 0.5-μm film of SO2 ice will absorb over 20% of long-wave radiation, so a 10-μm droplet of SO2 liquid will absorb it all. The clouds of Venus are near-perfect absorbers of long-wave radiation, and near-perfect radiators too, just like our own water clouds. Unlike the Earth, however, Venus is always entirely covered with clouds. Neither the planet surface nor the lower atmosphere has any opportunity to radiate heat directly into space. Venus radiates heat directly into space only from its cloud-tops and upper atmosphere.
Although most of the sun's heat is reflected back into space, 10% is absorbed, and we estimate that around 1% reaches the surface of the planet. This heat will raise the temperature of the surface until it forces convection. Here is the convection diagram from our Atmospheric Convection post.
Gas warms at the surface. It rises, expands, radiates heat into space, falls, contracts, and warms again. As the gas expands, it gets cooler. As it contracts, it gets warmer. In our simplistic analysis, we assumed that the expansion and contraction were adiabatic, meaning they took place without any heat entering or leaving the gas. In reality, the gas radiates heat to nearby gas, absorbs heat from nearby gas, mixes with nearby gas, and generates heat through viscous friction. But our adiabatic assumption allowed us to estimate the temperature changes using the equation of adiabatic expansion and contraction. For an ideal diatomic gas, such as N2 or O2, p−0.4T1.4 remains constant during adiabatic changes, where p is pressure and T is temperature. For CO2, however, the equation is p−0.3T1.3 at 300 K and p−0.2T1.2 at 1300 K (see here for thermodynamic properties of CO2).
The Earth's tropopause is at altitude 15 km. According to our typical conditions, the tropopause is at 220 K with pressure 22 kPa, while the surface pressure is 100 kPa. Adiabatic compression implies that air descending from the tropopause to the surface will heat up to 340 K. But the Earth's surface is at only 280 K. Air descending 10 km from the tropopause to the surface appears to lose 20% of its heat while contracting to a third of its original volume.
The atmosphere of Venus will heat up as it descends from the tropopause to the surface, and it will be hottest if it does not lose any heat on the way down. The pressure rises from 10 kPa in the tropopause to 9,300 kPa at the surface. The temperature starts at 240 K. Adiabatic compression of an ideal diatomic gas would heat the gas to 1700 K. If we use p−0.25T1.25 as an approximation for CO2, we estimate a final temperature of 941 K.
According to Wikipedia, the surface temperature of Venus is actually 740 K. Carbon dioxide falling 65 km from the tropopause to the surface appears to lose 20% of its heat while being compressed into less than a hundredth of its original volume.
Despite the 20% difference between our calculations and our observations, we see that atmospheric convection makes the surface of Venus incredibly hot while leaving the surface of the Earth delightfully temperate.
If we recall our post on work by convection and another on atmospheric dissipation, we see that a strong convection cycle causes powerful weather. Venus's convection cycle produces an order of magnitude more contraction and expansion than the Earth's. We expect Venus's weather to be an order of magnitude more extreme. And indeed it is.