Tag Archives: sunlight

Why is it hot at the equator, cold at the poles?

Here’s a somewhat mathematical look at why it is hotter at the equator that at the poles. This is high school or basic college level science, using trigonometry (pre calculus), a slight step beyond the basic statement that the sun hits down more directly at the equator than at the poles. That’s the kid’s explanation, but we can understand better if we add a little math.

Solar radiation hits Detroit at an angle, as a result less radiation power hits per square meter of Detroit.

Solar radiation hits Detroit or any other non-equator point at an angle, As a result, less radiation power hits per square meter of land.

Lets use the diagram at right and trigonometry to compare the amount of sun-energy that falls on a square meter of land at the equator (0 latitude) and in a city at 42.5 N latitude (Detroit, Boston, and Rome are at this latitude). In each case, let’s consider high-noon on March 21 or September 20. These are the two equinox days, the only days each year when the day and night are equal length, and the only times when it is easy to calculate the angle of the sun as it deviates from the vertical by exactly the latitude on the days and times.

More specifically the equator is zero latitude, so on the equator at high-noon on the equinox, the sun will shine from directly overhead, or 0° from the vertical. Since the sun’s power in space is 1050 W/m2, every square meter of equator can expect to receive 1050 W of sun-energy, less the amount reflected off clouds and dust, or scattered off or air molecules (air scattering is what makes the sky blue). Further north, Detroit, Boston, and Rome sit at 42.5 latitude. At noon on March 31 the sun will strike earth at 42.5° from the vertical as shown in the lower figure above. From trigonometry, you can see that each square meter of these cities will receive cos 42.5 as much power as a square meter at the equator, except for any difference in clouds, dust, etc. Without clouds etc. that would be 1050 cos 42.5 = 774 W. Less sun power hits per square meter because each square meter is tilted. Earlier and later in the day, each spot will get less sunlight than at noon, but the proportion is the same, at least on one of the equinox days.

To calculate the likely temperature in Detroit, Boston, or Rome, I will use a simple energy balance. Ignoring heat storage in the earth for now, we will say that the heat in equals the heat out. We now ignore heat transfer by way of winds and rain, and approximate to say that the heat out leaves by black-body radiation alone, radiating into the extreme cold of space. This is not a very bad approximation since Black body radiation is the main temperature removal mechanism in most situations where large distances are involved. I’ve discussed black body radiation previously; the amount of energy radiated is proportional to luminosity, and to T4, where T is the temperature as measured in an absolute temperature scale, Kelvin or Rankin. Based on this, and assuming that the luminosity of the earth is the same in Detroit as at the equator,

T Detroit / Tequator  = √√ cos 42.5 = .927

I’ll now calculate the actual temperatures. For American convenience, I’ll choose to calculation in the Rankin Temperature scale, the absolute Fahrenheit scale. In this scale, 100°F = 560°R, 0°F = 460°R, and the temperature of space is 0°R as a good approximation. If the average temperature of the equator = 100°F = 38°C = 560°R, we calculate that the average temperature of Detroit, Boston, or Rome will be about .927 x 560 = 519°R = 59°F (15°C). This is not a bad prediction, given the assumptions. We can expect the temperature will be somewhat lower at night as there is no light, but the temperature will not fall to zero as there is retained heat from the day. The same reason, retained heat, explains why it is warmer will be warmer in these cities on September 20 than on March 31.

In the summer, these cities will be warmer because they are in the northern hemisphere, and the north pole is tilted 23°. At the height of summer (June 21) at high noon, the sun will shine on Detroit at an angle of 42.5 – 23° = 19.5° from the vertical. The difference in angle is why these cities are warmer on that day than on March 21. The equator will be cooler on that day (June 21) than on March 21 since the sun’s rays will strike the equator at 23° from the vertical on that day. These  temperature differences are behind the formation of tornadoes and hurricanes, with a tornado season in the US centering on May to July.

When looking at the poles, we find a curious problem in guessing what the average temperature will be. At noon on the equinox, the sun comes in horizontally, or at 90°from the vertical. We thus expect there is no warming power at all this day, and none for the six months of winter either. At first glance, you’d think the temperature at the poles would be zero, at least for six months of the year. It isn’t zero because there is retained heat from the summer, but still it makes for a more-difficult calculation.

To figure an average temperature of the poles, lets remember that during the 6 month summer the sun shines for 24 hours per day, and that the angle of the sun will be as high as 23° from the horizon, or 67° from the vertical for all 24 hours. Let’s assume that the retained heat from the summer is what keeps the temperature from falling too low in the winter and calculate the temperature at an .

Let’s assume that the sun comes in at the equivalent of 25° for the sun during the 6 month “day” of the polar summer. I don’t look at equinox, but rather the solar day, and note that the heating angle stays fixed through each 24 hour day during the summer, and does not decrease in the morning or as the afternoon wears on. Based on this angle, we expect that

TPole / Tequator  = √√ cos 65° = .806

TPole = .806 x 560°R = 452°R = -8°F (-22°C).

This, as it happens is 4° colder than the average temperature at the north pole, but not bad, given the assumptions. Maybe winds and water currents account for the difference. Of course there is a large temperature difference at the pole between the fall equinox and the spring equinox, but that’s to be expected. The average is, -4°F, about the temperature at night in Detroit in the winter.

One last thing, one that might be unexpected, is that temperature at the south pole is lower than at the north pole, on average -44°F. The main reason for this is that the snow on south pole is quite deep — more than 1 1/2 miles deep, with some rock underneath. As I showed elsewhere, we expect that, temperatures are lower at high altitude. Data collected from cores through the 1 1/2 mile deep snow suggest (to me) chaotic temperature change, with long ice ages, and brief (6000 year) periods of warm. The ice ages seem far worse than global warming.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum, December 30, 2017

Paint your factory roof white

Standing on the flat roof of my lab / factory building, I notice that virtually all of my neighbors’ roofs are black, covered by tar or bitumen. My roof was black too until three weeks ago; the roof was too hot to touch when I’d gone up to patch a leak. That’s not quite egg-frying hot, but I came to believe my repair would last longer if the roof stayed cooler. So, after sealing the leak with tar and bitumen, we added an aluminized over-layer from Ace hardware. The roof is cooler now than before, and I notice a major drop in air conditioner load and use.

My analysis of our roof coating follows; it’s for Detroit, but you can modify it for your location. Sunlight hits the earth carrying 1300 W/m2. Some 300W/m2 scatters as blue light (for why so much scatters, and why the sky is blue, see here). The rest, 1000 W/m2 or 308 Btu/ft2hr, comes through or reflects off clouds on a cloudy day and hits buildings at an angle determined by latitude, time of day, and season of the year.

Detroit is at 42° North latitude so my roof shows an angle of 42° to the sun at noon in mid spring. In summer, the angle is 20°, and in winter about 63°. The sun sinks lower on the horizon through the day, e.g. at two hours before or after noon in mid spring the angle is 51°. On a clear day, with a perfectly black roof, the heating is 308 Btu/ft2hr times the cosine of the angle.

To calculate our average roof heating, I integrated this heat over the full day’s angles using Euler’s method, and included the scatter from clouds plus an absorption factor for the blackness of the roof. The figure below shows the cloud cover for Detroit.

Average cloud cover for Detroit, month by month.

Average cloud cover for Detroit, month by month; the black line is the median cloud cover. On January 1, it is strongly overcast 60% of the time, and hardly ever clear; the median is about 98%. From http://weatherspark.com/averages/30042/Detroit-Michigan-United-States

Based on this and an assumed light absorption factor of σ = .9 for tar and σ = .2 after aluminum. I calculate an average of 105 Btu/ft2hr heating during the summer for the original black roof, and 23 Btu/ft2hr after aluminizing. Our roof is still warm, but it’s no longer hot. While most of the absorbed heat leaves the roof by black body radiation or convection, enough enters my lab through 6″ of insulation to cause me to use a lot of air conditioning. I calculate the heat entering this way from the roof temperature. In the summer, an aluminum coat is a clear winner.

Detroit High and Low Temperatures Over the ear

High and Low Temperatures For Detroit, Month by Month. From http://weatherspark.com/averages/30042/Detroit-Michigan-United-States

Detroit has a cold winter too, and these are months where I’d benefit from solar heat. I find it’s so cloudy in winter that, even with a black roof, I got less than 5 Btu/ft2hr. Aluminizing reduced this heat to 1.2 Btu/ft2hr, but it also reduces the black-body radiation leaving at night. I should find that I use less heat in winter, but perhaps more in late spring and early fall. I won’t know the details till next year, but that’s the calculation.

The REB Research laboratory is located at 12851 Capital St., Oak Park, MI 48237. We specialize in hydrogen separations and membrane reactors. By Dr. Robert Buxbaum, June 16, 2013

Hormesis, Sunshine and Radioactivity

It is often the case that something is good for you in small amounts, but bad in large amounts. As expressed by Paracelsus, an early 16th century doctor, “There is no difference between a poison and a cure: everything depends on dose.”

Aereolis Bombastus von Hoenheim (Paracelcus)

Phillipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoenheim (Dr. Paracelsus).

Some obvious examples involve foods: an apple a day may keep the doctor away. Fifteen will cause deep physical problems. Alcohol, something bad in high doses, and once banned in the US, tends to promote longevity and health when consumed in moderation, 1/2-2 glasses per day. This is called “hormesis”, where the dose vs benefit curve looks like an upside down U. While it may not apply to all foods, poisons, and insults, a view called “mitridatism,” it has been shown to apply to exercise, chocolate, coffee and (most recently) sunlight.

Up until recently, the advice was to avoid direct sun because of the risk of cancer. More recent studies show that the benefits of small amounts of sunlight outweigh the risks. Health is improved by lowering blood pressure and exciting the immune system, perhaps through release of nitric oxide. At low doses, these benefits far outweigh the small chance of skin cancer. Here’s a New York Times article reviewing the health benefits of 2-6 cups of coffee per day.

A hotly debated issue is whether radiation too has a hormetic dose range. In a previous post, I noted that thyroid cancer rates down-wind of the Chernobyl disaster are lower than in the US as a whole. I thought this was a curious statistical fluke, but apparently it is not. According to a review by The Harvard Medical School, apparent health improvements have been seen among the cleanup workers at Chernobyl, and among those exposed to low levels of radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The health   improvements relative to the general population could be a fluke, but after a while several flukes become a pattern.

Among the comments on my post, came this link to this scholarly summary article of several studies showing that long-term exposure to nuclear radiation below 1 Sv appears to be beneficial. One study involved an incident where a highly radioactive, Co-60 source was accidentally melted into a batch of steel that was subsequently used in the construction of apartments in Taiwan. The mistake was not discovered for over a decade, and by then the tenants had received between 0.4 and 6 Sv (far more than US law would allow). On average, they were healthier than the norm and had significantly lower cancer death rates. Supporting this is the finding, in the US, that lung cancer death rates are 35% lower in the states with the highest average radon radiation levels (Colorado, North Dakota, and Iowa) than in those with the lowest levels (Delaware, Louisiana, and California). Note: SHORT-TERM exposure to 1 Sv is NOT good for you; it will give radiation sickness, and short-term exposure to 4.5 Sv is the 50% death level

Most people in the irradiated Taiwan apartments got .2 Sv/year or less, but the same health benefit has also been shown for people living on radioactive sites in China and India where the levels were as high as .6 Sv/year (normal US background radiation is .0024 Sv/year). Similarly, virtually all animal and plant studies show that radiation appears to improve life expectancy and fecundity (fruit production, number of offspring) at dose rates as high as 1 Sv/month.

I’m not recommending 1 Sv/month for healthy people, it’s a cancer treatment dose, and will make healthy people feel sick. A possible reason it works for plants and some animals is that the radiation may kill proto- cancer, harmful bacteria, and viruses — organisms that lack the repair mechanisms of larger, more sophisticated organisms. Alternately, it could kill non-productive, benign growths allowing the more-healthy growths to do their thing. This explanation is similar to that for the benefits farmers produce by pinching off unwanted leaves and pruning unwanted branches.

It is not conclusive radiation improved human health in any of these studies. It is possible that exposed people happened to choose healthier life-styles than non-exposed people, choosing to smoke less, do more exercise, or eat fewer cheeseburgers (that, more-or-less, was my original explanation). Or it may be purely psychological: people who think they have only a few years to live, live healthier. Then again, it’s possible that radiation is healthy in small doses and maybe cheeseburgers and cigarettes are too?! Here’s a scene from “Sleeper” a 1973, science fiction, comedy movie where Woody Allan, asleep for 200 years, finds that deep fat, chocolate, and cigarettes are the best things for your health. You may not want a cigarette or a radium necklace quite yet, but based on these studies, I’m inclined to reconsider the risk/ benefit balance in favor of nuclear power.

Note: my company, REB Research makes (among other things), hydrogen getters (used to reduce the risks of radioactive waste transportation) and hydrogen separation filters (useful for cleanup of tritium from radioactive water, for fusion reactors, and to reduce the likelihood of explosions in nuclear facilities.

by Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum June 9, 2013

Chaos, Stocks, and Global Warming

Two weeks ago, I discussed black-body radiation and showed how you calculate the rate of radiative heat transfer from any object. Based on this, I claimed that basal metabolism (the rate of calorie burning for people at rest) was really proportional to surface area, not weight as in most charts. I also claimed that it should be near-impossible to lose weight through exercise, and went on to explain why we cover the hot parts of our hydrogen purifiers and hydrogen generators in aluminum foil.

I’d previously discussed chaos and posted a chart of the earth’s temperature over the last 600,000 years. I’d now like to combine these discussions to give some personal (R. E. Buxbaum) thoughts on global warming.

Black-body radiation differs from normal heat transfer in that the rate is proportional to emissivity and is very sensitive to temperature. We can expect the rate of heat transfer from the sun to earth will follow these rules, and that the rate from the earth will behave similarly.

That the earth is getting warmer is seen as proof that the carbon dioxide we produce is considered proof that we are changing the earth’s emissivity so that we absorb more of the sun’s radiation while emitting less (relatively), but things are not so simple. Carbon dioxide should, indeed promote terrestrial heating, but a hotter earth should have more clouds and these clouds should reflect solar radiation, while allowing the earth’s heat to radiate into space. Also, this model would suggest slow, gradual heating beginning, perhaps in 1850, but the earth’s climate is chaotic with a fractal temperature rise that has been going on for the last 15,000 years (see figure).

Recent temperature variation as measured from the Greenland Ice. A previous post had the temperature variation over the past 600,000 years.

Recent temperature variation as measured from the Greenland Ice. Like the stock market, it shows aspects of chaos.

Over a larger time scale, the earth’s temperature looks, chaotic and cyclical (see the graph of global temperature in this post) with ice ages every 120,000 years, and chaotic, fractal variation at times spans of 100 -1000 years. The earth’s temperature is self-similar too; that is, its variation looks the same if one scales time and temperature. This is something that is seen whenever a system possess feedback and complexity. It’s seen also in the economy (below), a system with complexity and feedback.

Manufacturing Profit is typically chaotic -- something that makes it exciting.

Manufacturing Profit is typically chaotic — and seems to have cold spells very similar to the ice ages seen above.

The economy of any city is complex, and the world economy even more so. No one part changes independent of the others, and as a result we can expect to see chaotic, self-similar stock and commodity prices for the foreseeable future. As with global temperature, the economic data over a 10 year scale looks like economic data over a 100 year scale. Surprisingly,  the economic data looks similar to the earth temperature data over a 100 year or 1000 year scale. It takes a strange person to guess either consistently as both are chaotic and fractal.


It takes a rather chaotic person to really enjoy stock trading (Seen here, Gomez Addams of the Addams Family TV show).

Clouds and ice play roles in the earth’s feedback mechanisms. Clouds tend to increase when more of the sun’s light heats the oceans, but the more clouds, the less heat gets through to the oceans. Thus clouds tend to stabilize our temperature. The effect of ice is to destabilize: the more heat that gets to the ice, the more melts and the less of the suns heat is reflected to space. There is time-delay too, caused by the melting flow of ice and ocean currents as driven by temperature differences among the ocean layers, and (it seems) by salinity. The net result, instability and chaos.

The sun has chaotic weather too. The rate of the solar reactions that heat the earth increases with temperature and density in the sun’s interior: when a volume of the sun gets hotter, the reaction rates pick up making the volume yet-hotter. The temperature keeps rising, and the heat radiated to the earth keeps increasing, until a density current develops in the sun. The hot area is then cooled by moving to the surface and the rate of solar output decreases. It is quite likely that some part of our global temperature rise derives from this chaotic variation in solar output. The ice caps of Mars are receding.

The change in martian ice could be from the sun, or it might be from Martian dust in the air. If so, it suggests yet another feedback system for the earth. When economic times age good we have more money to spend on agriculture and air pollution control. For all we know, the main feedback loops involve dust and smog in the air. Perhaps, the earth is getting warmer because we’ve got no reflective cloud of dust as in the dust-bowl days, and our cities are no longer covered by a layer of thick, black (reflective) smog. If so, we should be happy to have the extra warmth.

Why isn’t the sky green and the sun orange?

A simple reason the sky isn’t green is that the sun is not orange is that the sun’s color and the sky color relate to the sun’s surface temperature. This is called black body radiation because, if you heat up a black object it will first glow red, then orange, yellow, green etc. Red is a relatively cool color because it’s a low frequency (long wavelength) and low frequencies are the easiest for a black body to produce. As the temperature increases, the amount of short wavelength colors increases faster than the amount of long wavelength colors, and the object glows in a color that represents its temperature.

Our star is called a yellow sun because the center color of the radiation our sun provides is yellow. The sun provides radiation in all colors and wavelengths, but because of its temperature, most of the radiated energy appears in the visible spectrum from violet to red, with yellow as the center. The sun also radiates some energy as invisible light, ultraviolet and infra-red, but not all that much. Thus, the simple answer to why the sun isn’t blue or green, it’s that the sun is too cool to be these colors.

Of the light of the sun, some small amount (about 10%) scatters off of the molecules in the air. This is called Rayleigh scatter, and the fraction radiated is proportional to the 4th power of the frequency. Because the scatter is frequency dependent, the high frequencies (blue, indigo, and violet) scatter a lot, about 20%, while the red hardly scatters at all. As a result the sky looks blue, while the sun looks pretty much the same if viewed from earth or from space.

The sun looks orange at sundown because the sunlight has to go through more air, and a lot more of the yellow, green, and blue scatter away before we see it. I might expect the sky to look somewhat greenish at sundown, but I have not noticed. If the molecules in the air were bigger we’d still see the same color, though its intensity would be greater. That’s the effect that carbon dioxide has — it causes more sunlight to scatter, making the sky a brighter blue (it also holds in the infra-red, but that’s a different story). If the sun were cooler (orange say), the sky might appear as green. That’s because there would be less violet and blue in the sunlight, and the sky color would be shifted to the longer wavelengths. My summary is thus, that on planets where the sun is cooler than ours, the sky is green.

Rayleigh scatter only applies to molecules and other objects that are much smaller than the size of the light wavelength. A typical molecule of air is about 1 nm in size (1E-9 of a meter), while the wavelength of yellow light is about 580 nm long. Clearly, the molecules of air are much smaller than the wavelength of light. With snow, the size of the crystals are 500-2000 nm in size, so the snow looks like all the colors of the sun together, and that’s white. White = the sum of all the colors: red + orange + blue + green + yellow + violet + indigo.