Total Solar Irradiance

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Total Solar Irradiance

Global warming

Measuring solar irradiance


Total solar irradiance is defined as the amount of radiant energy emitted by the sun over all wavelengths that fall each second on 11 sq ft (1 sq m) outside Earths atmosphere.

By way of further definition, irradiance is defined as the amount of electromagnetic energy incident on a surface per unit time per unit area. Solar refers to electromagnetic radiation in the spectral range of approximately 1 to 9 ft (0.30 to 3 m), where the shortest wavelengths are in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum, the intermediate wavelengths in the visible region, and the longer wavelengths are in the near infrared. Total means that the solar flux has been integrated over all wavelengths to include the contributions from ultraviolet, visible, and infrared radiation.

By convention, the surface features of the sun are classified into three regions: the photosphere, the chromosphere, and the corona. The photosphere corresponds to the bright region normally visible from Earth by the naked eye. About 3,100 mi (5,000 km) above the photosphere lies the chromosphere, from which short-lived, needlelike projections (called prominences) may extend upward for several thousands of kilometers. The corona is the outermost layer of the sun; this region extends into the region of the planets as the solar wind. Most of the surface features of the sun lie within the photosphere, though a few extend into the chromosphere or even the corona.

The average amount of energy from the sun per unit area that reaches the upper regions of Earths atmosphere is known as the solar constant; its value is approximately 1,367 watts per square meter. As Earth-based measurements of this quantity are of doubtful accuracy due to variations in Earths atmosphere, scientists have come to rely on satellites to make these measurements.

Although referred to as the solar constant, this quantity actually has been found to vary since careful measurements started being made in 1978. In 1980, a satellite-based measurement yielded the value of 1,368.2 watts per square meter. Over the next few years, the value was found to decrease by about 0.04% per year. Such variations have now been linked to several physical processes known to occur in the suns interior, as will be described below.

From Earth, it is only possible to observe the radiant energy emitted by the sun in the direction of the planet; this quantity is referred to as the solar irradiance. This radiant solar energy is known to influence the Earths weather and climate, although the exact relationships between solar irradiance and long-term climatological changes, such as global warming, are not well understood.

The total radiant energy emitted from the sun in all directions is a quantity known as solar luminosity. The luminosity of the sun has been estimated to be 3.8478 × 1026 watts. Some scientists believe that long-term variations in the solar luminosity may be a better correlate to environmental conditions on Earth than solar irradiance, including global warming. Variations in solar luminosity are also of interest to scientists who wish to gain a better understanding of stellar rotation, convection, and magnetism.

Because short-term variations of certain regions of the solar spectrum may not accurately reflect changes in the true luminosity of the sun, measurements of total solar irradiance, which by definition take into account the solar flux contributions over all wavelengths, provide a better representation of the total luminosity of the sun.

Short-term variations in solar irradiation vary significantly with the position of the observer, so such variations may not provide a very accurate picture of changes in the solar luminosity. But the total solar irradiance at any given position gives a better representation because it includes contributions over the spectrum of wavelengths represented in the solar radiation.

Variations in the solar irradiance are at a level that can be detected by ground-based astronomical measurements of light. Such variations have been found to be about 0.1% of the average solar irradiance. Starting in 1978, space-based instruments aboard Nimbus 7, Solar Maximum Mission (SolarMax), and other satellites began making the sort of measurements (reproducible to within a few parts per million each year) that allowed scientists to acquire a better understanding of variations in the total solar irradiance. Other data came from the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (19912001) and ACRIMSAT (2000). Future satellites to be launched for studies of the Sun include the Solar Orbiter by the European Space Agency (ESA). It is expected to be launched in 2015 in order to make observations of the sun within 45 solar radii.

Variations in solar irradiance have been attributed to the following solar phenomena: oscillations, granulation, sunspots, faculae, and solar cycle.

Oscillations, which cause variations in the solar irradiance lasting about five minutes, arise from the action of resonant waves trapped in the suns interior.

At any given time, there are tens of millions of frequencies represented by the resonant waves, but only certain oscillations contribute to variations in the solar constant.

Granulation, which produces solar irradiance variations lasting about ten minutes, is closely related to the convective energy flow in the outer part of the suns interior. To the observer on Earth, the surface of the sun appears to be made up of finely divided regions known as granules, each from 311 to 1,864 mi (500 to 3000 km) across, separated by dark regions. Each of these granules makes its appearance for about ten minutes and then disappears. Granulation apparently results from convection effects that appear to cease several hundred kilometers below the visible surface, but in fact extend out into the photosphere, i.e., the region of the sun visible to the naked eye. These granules are believed to be the centers of rising convection cells.

Sunspots give rise to variations that may last for several days, and sometimes as long as 200 days. They actually correspond to regions of intense magnetic activity where the solar atmosphere is slightly cooler than the surroundings. Sunspots appear as dark regions on the suns surface to observers on Earth. They are formed when the magnetic field lines just below the suns surface become twisted, and then poke though the solar photosphere. Solar irradiance measurements have also shown that the presence of large groups of sunspots on the suns surface produce dips ranging in amplitude from 0.10 to 0.25% of the solar constant. This reduction in the total solar irradiance has been attributed both to the presence of these sunspots and to the temporary storage of solar energy over times longer than the sunspots lifetime. Another key observation has been that the largest decreases in total solar irradiance frequently coincide with the formation of newly formed active regions associated with large sunspots, or with rapidly evolving, complex sunspots. Sunspots are especially noteworthy for their 11-year activity cycle.

Faculae, producing variations that may last for tens of days, are bright regions in the photosphere where high-temperature interior regions of the sun radiate energy. They tend to congregate in bright regions near sunspots, forming solar active regions. Faculae, which have sizes on the order of 620 mi (1,000 km) or less, appear to be tube like regions defined by magnetic field lines. These regions are less dense than surrounding areas. Because radiation from hotter layers below the photosphere can leak through the walls of the faculae, an atmosphere is produced that appears hotter, and brighter, than others.

The solar cycle is responsible for variations in the solar irradiance that have a period of about 11 years. This 11-year activity cycle of sunspot frequency is actually half of a 22-year magnetic cycle, which arises from the reversal of the poles of the suns magnetic field. From one activity cycle to the next, the north magnetic pole becomes the south magnetic pole, and vice versa. Solar luminosity has been found to achieve a maximum value at the very time that sunspot activity is highest during the 11-year sunspot cycle. Scientists have confirmed the length of the solar cycle by examining tree rings for variations in deuterium-to-hydrogen ratios. This ratio is temperature-dependent because deuterium molecules, which are a heavy form of the hydrogenmolecule, are less mobile than the lighter hydrogen molecules, and therefore less responsive to thermal motion induced by increases in the solar irradiance.

Surprisingly, the suns rotation, with a rotational period of about 27 days, does not give rise to significant variations in the total solar irradiance. This is because its effects are overridden by the contributions of sunspots and faculae.

Global warming

Scientists have speculated that long-term solar irradiance variations might contribute to global warming over decades or hundreds of years. More recently, there has been speculation that changes in total solar irradiation have amplified the greenhouse effect, i.e., the retention of solar radiation and gradual warming of Earths atmosphere. Some of these changes, particularly small shifts in the length of the activity cycle, seem to correlate rather closely with climatic conditions in pre- and post-industrial times. Whether variations in solar irradiance can account for a substantial fraction of global warming over the past 150 years, however, remains a highly controversial point of scientific discussion.

Some researchers are convinced solar irradiance has increased between 1986 and 2006 (the years of the twentieth centurys last two solar minima and the year of the twenty-first centurys first solar minima, respectively) and this increase is consistent with the conclusion that long term solar irradiance changes are occurring. However, other scientists disagree, citing data inconsistent with such a conclusion. In particular, they have reported that solar irradiance was at similar levels in the years 1986 and 1996, but the global surface temperature of Earth had increased by about 0.2 degrees Celsius during the same decade. Although researchers disagree about whether recent changes in


Near infrared radiation Electromagnetic radiation typically produced by molecules that have been excited with low levels of energy. Near infrared radiation has a range of wavelengths about 2.50 to 0.75 µm. Such radiation can be detected by photoelectric cells.

Pyranometer Instrument used to measure the combined intensity of incident direct solar radiation and diffuse sky radiation. It operates by comparing the heat produced by the radiation on blackened metal strips with that produced by a known electric current.

Pyrgeometer Instrument that measures radiation from the Earths surface transmitted into space.

Pyrheliometer Instrument that measures the total intensity of direct solar radiation received by the Earth.

Radiometer Instrument that measures radiant energy. An example is the bolometer, which measures the energy of electromagnetic radiation at certain wavelengths by measuring the change in electrical resistance of a thin conductor due to heat accompanying the radiation.

Sunphotometer A type of photometer used to observe a narrow range of solar wavelengths. Most instruments produce an output signal proportional to the solar irradiance within the range of wavelengths. Some instruments determine spectral atmospheric transmission, which allows the contributions of various atmospheric constituents, e.g., aerosols, water vapor, and ozone, to be calculated.

Ultraviolet radiation Radiation similar to visible light but of shorter wavelength, and thus higher energy.

Visible radiation Also known as light, visible radiation, like all radiation, is produced by acceleration of charged particles, often by excited electrons in atoms or molecules as they lose energy in the process of returning to their normal, or unexcited, state. Range of wavelengths in solar radiation: approximately 0.78 to 0.40 µm.

the total solar irradiance can account for global warming between 1986 and 2006, most agree that long-term solar irradiance measurements will help elucidate the role the sun actually plays in driving global climate changes.

Measuring solar irradiance

Measurements of solar irradiance can be characterized by the range of wavelengths (or frequencies) they are sensitive to. The three types of measurements are broadband, wideband, and narrowband.

Broadband measurements

Broadband measurements typically record the complete solar spectrum. Quantities typically obtained in these types of measurements include:

  • Direct solar irradiance, defined as the solar radiation that passes directly though the atmosphere from the sun without being scattered or absorbed by the atmosphere. Scientists usually use pyrheliometers to measure this quantity, though more accurate measurements can be obtained using absolute cavity radiometers.
  • Diffuse sky solar irradiance is the solar irradiance that reaches the ground after being scattered by particles in the atmosphere, including air molecules, dust, or cloud particles. To measure this quantity, scientists use a pyranometer that does not register the effects of the direct solar irradiance.
  • Downward total solar irradiance is the total amount of solar irradiance that reaches an upward-facing horizontal surface. It is the sum of the vertical component of the direct solar irradiance and the diffuse sky irradiance. It is measured either with a pyranometer, or alternatively by summing the direct and diffuse horizontal irradiance.
  • Upward solar irradiance is the solar irradiance that reaches a downward-facing surface. The source of this quantity is the downward solar irradiance that is reflected off Earths surface. This quantity is measured with an inverted pyranometer.
  • Downward longwave irradiance is thermal irradiance emitted in all directions by the atmosphere, e.g., gases, aerosols, and clouds, as received by an horizontal upward facing surface. It is measured with a pyrgeometer.
  • Upward longwave irradiance is the thermal irradiance emitted from Earths surface that passes through a horizontal surface at a representative distance above the ground. It is measured with an inverted pyrgeometer.

Wideband measurements

Wideband measurements typically focus on a region of the solar spectrum on the order of 10% that seen in broadband studies.

  • Direct solar irradiance can be measured with a pyrheliometer equipped with suitable filters.
  • Downward solar irradiance can be measured with a pyranometer equipped with an appropriate filter.

Narrowband measurements

Narrowband measurements cover a very narrow range of the solar spectrum.

  • Direct, diffuse, and total solar irradiance measurements can be made using a radiometer.
  • Direct solar irradiance measurements can be made using a sun photometer.

See also Global climate; Solar flare.



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Randall Frost