Terrestrial Planet Atmospheres

 Reading: Chapter 10


LEFT: This Hubble Space Telescope ultraviolet-light image of the planet Venus was taken on January 24, 1995. At ultraviolet wavelengths cloud patterns become distinctive. In particular, a horizontal "Y" shaped cloud feature is visible near the equator. The polar regions are bright, possibly showing a haze of small particles overlying the main clouds. The dark regions show the location of enhanced sulfur dioxide near the cloud tops. From previous missions, astronomers know that such features travel east to west along with the Venus' prevailing winds, to make a complete circuit around the planet in four days. (Credit: L. Esposito, University of Colorado, Boulder, and NASA)

RIGHT: This NASA Hubble Space Telescope view of Mars is the clearest picture ever taken from Earth, surpassed only by close-up shots sent back by visiting space probes. The picture was taken on February 25, 1995. Because it is spring in Mars' northern hemisphere, much of the carbon dioxide frost around the permanent water-ice cap has sublimated, and the cap has receded to its core of solid water-ice several hundred miles across. The abundance of wispy white clouds indicates that the atmosphere is cooler than seen by visiting space probes in the 1970s. Morning clouds appear along the planet's western (left) limb. These form overnight when Martian temperatures plunge and water in the atmosphere freezes out to form ice-crystal clouds. Towering 25 kilometers (16 miles) above the surrounding plains, volcano Ascraeus Mons pokes above the cloud deck near the western or limb. Valles Marineris is in the lower left. (Credit: Philip James, University of Toledo; Steven Lee, University of Colorado; and NASA)

In this session we will discuss the general principles of planetary atmospheres in general and consider the atmospheres of Earth, Venus and Mars in particular, covering the topics of

Once we have a basic idea of how atmospheres behave, we can consider climate evolution: how the Earth's climate is changing, how Earth and Venus's atmospheres evolved to be so different (despite these two planets being very similar and so close to each other) and how Mars' has climate evolved from what may have been a comfortable environment for life to a cold, harsh, barren world

Goldilocks Paradox

Why are Mars and Venus apparently barren while Earth has abundant life? Mars is too cold, Venus is too hot, and Earth is just right. Why? To answer this question we need to consider the factors that control a planet's surface temperature.

Distance from the Sun
Clearly, the closer a planet is to the Sun, the warmer it will be. This relationship is not as strong as you might expect it to be, however. Figure 10.3 illustrates how the temperature of planet is controlled, on average, by the balance of energy incoming received from the sun and the outgoing thermal radiation from the planet. Mathematically, the relationship can be expressed:

Temperature  1/D

Where D is the distance from the Sun (which we usually measure in Astronomical Units, AU). The symbol means "is proportional to". This relationship means that a planet that the farther a planet is from the Sun, the lower the temperature (D goes up, then T goes down). But the square-root means that the temperature decreases slowly with distance. If you double the distance, the temperature decreases by only 2. A planet that is 4 times closer to the Sun, will only be 4= 2 times warmer.


(1) Saturn is at about 9 AU from the Sun. Earth, of course, is at 1 AU. If distance from the Sun were the only factor controlling the temperature of a planet, Saturn would have a temperature that is: (a) 9 times warmer than the Earth, (b) 9 times colder than the Earth, (c) 3 times warmer than the Earth, (d) 3 times colder than the Earth?


The color of a planet, particularly how light or dark is also an important controlling factor.
(2) (a) Have you ever gotten into a car that has been sitting out in the sun and sat down on black seats? Did the seat feel hot or cold?
(b) Would it have been the same if the seats were white?
(c) Is it coincidence that people wear white clothing in summer, particularly in hot countries?


The issue is really not "color" - that is, red, green, yellow, etc.; so much as reflectivity. We have a special word for the reflectivity of planetary bodies - albedo. The albedo of an object is a number between 0 and 1 and it is just the fraction of light that is reflected. See Table 10.2 for the terrestrial planets.

(3) (a) Does a dark, black object have an albedo close to 0 or to 1?
(b) What is the albedo of a white object?
(c) Mercury is covered in dark rocks and dust. Do you expect Mercury to have a high (close to 1) or low (close to 0) albedo?
(d) If a planet is covered in white clouds do you expect it to have a high (close to 1) or low (close to 0) albedo?

(4) Now, consider the effect of albedo on a planet's temperature.
(a) If a planet's albedo is small, will a planet be warm or cold?
(b) If a planet is covered in white frost, would you expect it to be warm or cold?

We can now combine the effects of distance from the Sun and albedo on the temperature of a planet. We are interested in the equilibrium temperature which is the temperature of an object that is just sitting in the Sun, absorbing sunlight. The object will be loosing energy by thermal radiation - this was discussed in Session 13 on Light - remember the Stefan-Boltzmann law? (Go back and remind yourself if necessary). When the amount of energy emitted by the planet balances the amount of energy received from the Sun, the planet is in equilibrium. Mathematically, we can write:

Teq = (1 - A)1/4 x 1/D  x 280 Kelvin

where Teq is the equilibrium temperature, A is albedo and D is the distance from the Sun (in units of AU). (Dont' worry! You will not be expected to derive or remember this equation). Just think about what it means, for now. Pages 278-9 of the text book gives the full story in full glory.


(5) (a) The sunlight absorbed by planet is in the visible region of the spectrum. In what region of the spectrum is the light emitted by the planet?
(b) The Moon is at a distance of 1 AU from the Sun. The Moon's albedo is very small (about 0.06 - we can approximate this as 0.0). What does this make the equilibrium temperature for the Moon?
(c) See the conversions on Page 121 of the text to convert this to a temperature in Farhenheit.

I have calculated the equilibrium temperature for the terrestrial planets so we can compare this with the observed temperatures at night and during the day.

Distance (A.U.)
Reflectivity = ALBEDO
Difference (Day - Night )
Observed Temperature

no clouds


some clouds

few clouds

(6) (a) Fill in the difference between night and day temperatures for each planet. (Subtract the night temperature from the day temperature).
(b) Mercury heats up during its long `day' and cools down at night. How many Earth-days between sunrise and sunset on Mercury?
(c) Venus has a high albedo (0.72) - why?
(d) For which planet(s), if any, does the equilibrium temperature match the observed temperature?

Clearly, the temperatures of the planets are being affected by more factors than just distance from the Sun and albedo. In particularly, our calculation of equilibrium temperature completely ignored the planets' atmospheres.

Atmospheric Characteristics

Moon and Mercury
Look at the color of the sky as seen on the Moon (check your book). The Moon has no atmosphere, nor does Mercury. Gravity is the simplest explanation why Mercury and Moon do not have atmospheres while Earth, Venus and Mars do.

EARTH 1 1 1
VENUS 0.95 0.82 0.91
MARS 0.53 0.11 0.39
MERCURY 0.38 0.055
MOON 0.27 0.012

(7) (a) Using the same technique as in session 8 on Gravity to fill in the values of the acceleration due to gravity on the surfaces of Mercury and Moon compared with the Earth:

(b) WHY is gravity an important factor in determining how much of an atmosphere a planet has?

The differences in gravity explains why Mercury and Moon have essentially no atmosphere compared with Earth and Venus, but does not explain why Venus has a much denser atmosphere than Earth, nor why Mars has much more atmosphere than Mercury. For further explanation we will have to look for other factors.


The atmospheric pressure at sea-level on Earth is called 1 bar. Look at the atmospheric pressures at different heights for Venus

and for Mars.

A plot with the 3 atmospheres of Earth, Venus and Mars is shown in Figure 10.9.

(8) (a) How many times the Earth sea-level pressure is it on the surface of Venus?
(b).. and on the surface of Mars?
(c) How high up above the ground on Venus do you have to be before the atmospheric pressure is the same as sea-level on the Earth?


The chemical composition of an atmosphere is also very important.

If you find it difficult to read this diagram, try this one.


(9) (a) What are the main constituents of the atmospheres of:

    (i) EARTH:
    (ii) VENUS:
    (iii) MARS:

(b) In designing missions for exploration of the terrestrial planets we have to consider what kinds of space suits you need to be comfortable walking on each of the planets.  Considering the temperature, pressure and composition of each of the atmospheres of Venus, Mars and Mercury, describe the properties of space suits humans would need to explore these planets.

Greenhouse Effect

How does the greenhouse effect work? The principle involves the fact that the sunlight received by a planet is in the visible part of the spectrum while the energy that is radiated (lost) by the planet is in the infrared part of the spectrum.
(10) Remind yourself of the "two hump" spectrum of radiation from a planet from Session 13 on Light. In which 2 regions of the electromagnetic spectrum are the 2 humps?

Here is a sketch of the situation - the greenhouse effect - or check out Figure 10.8 in the textbook.

So, what exactly is a greenhouse gas? Here is a definition:

Greenhouse gas = gas which TRANSMITS visible light but ABSORBS IR radiation

Some examples of greenhouse gases are: CO2, H2O, O3, CH4, and chloro-fluorocarbons CFCs. (CFCs are better known for causing the Ozone holes over the Earth's polar regions. They are gases made by humans and used in various manufacturing processes. They are also strong greenhouse gases.) Note that 2 common gases on Earth's atmosphere, N2 and O2 are NOT greenhouse gases.

These gases let sunlight in to warm the planet but prevent the planet's heat from escaping--keeping the planet's surface warm - warmer than the equilibrium temperature we calculate only considering the distance to the Sun and albedo.
(11) (a) Not only does VENUS have more atmosphere then EARTH, but it is nearly all CO2--a green house gas--while Earth's atmosphere is mostly N2 with only a small amount of CO2. Hence, Venus is much hotter than Earth. What is Venus' temperature in Fahrenheit?
(b) MARS' atmosphere is mostly CO2. Why is Mars not has hot as Venus? (There are 2 reasons.)

Atmospheric Sources and Losses

Where to planetary atmospheres come from? The simple answer is that since gases are lighter than solids or fluids they tend to bubble to the top. This is true of gases coming out of a planet as much as steam coming out of soup or oatmeal.

Here is a cartoon of the atmospheric sources - Figure 10.20 of the text elaborates.

(12) (a)What is it about the 4 geological processes that makes it likely that a large planet will have more atmosphere?
(b) Return to Session 12 where we discussed the 4 geological processes. From just the occurance of volcanism among the 5 terrestrial planets, which would you expect to have substantial atmospheres?
(c) What is it about a planet's gravity that makes it likely that a large planet will have more atmosphere?
(d) Which of the 5 terrestrial planets do you expect to have lost any atmosphere it originally may have had?
(e) Why is hydrogen particularly easily lost from the terrestrial planets' atmospheres?

Next we will discuss the evolution of planetary atmospheres after they are produced by outgassing.

Summary - Basic Issues of Planetary Atmospheres

Equilibrium Temperature
Energy absorbed from VISIBLE sunlight
  • Decreases away from the Sun
  • Black/white objects absorb/reflect more sunlight
Energy radiated in IR thermal emission
  • Radiates out to space
  • Greenhouse gases (CO2, H2, O3, CH4) absorb IR as it tries to escape

Which solar system objects have atmospheres

Planetary Atmospheric Evolution

In discussing the properties of the atmospheres of the different terrestrial planets, we mentioned that the source of planetary atmospheres is mainly volcanism where gases from the interior of the planet are brought up to the surface. The main gases produced by volcanoes are H2O, H2S, CO2, N2, and CO. Here is the cartoon again that shows the atmospheric sources. Figure 10.20 shows evaporation and bombardment as additional sources of atmosphere. These were more important than volcanic sources in the early stages of planetary evolution (and remain important in the outer solar system) but are less important than volcanism for the bulk of the geological history for the terrestrial planets.

What happens to these gases when they enter the atmosphere?

(13) (a) On Earth, H2O condensed to form oceans, CO2 dissolved into the ocean (and became carbonate rocks), CO reacted with water to make more CO2--which of the main volcanic gases does this leave to make an atmosphere?
(b) In which ways has the presence of life on Earth affected the Earth's atmosphere?

Why are Earth and Venus so Different?

Earth and Venus both have volcanoes, both have the same amount of gravity and Venus is really not that much closer to the Sun than the Earth. Yet Venus as a thick, poisonous atmosphere and a surface temperature equivalent to a "high broil" in your oven. The critical difference is the presence of liquid oceans on the Earth:


(14) (a) Comparing the evolution of the atmospheres of Venus and Earth, the critical step is the formation of an ocean--why is the Earth's ocean so important?
(b) Water not only does not condense on Venus, it is broken up into its constituent elements. What are these elements?
(c) What happens to the hydrogen?
(d) What does this mean for the possibility of ever having an ocean on Venus, even if the temperature could somehow become cooler?
(e) This is sometimes called the "runaway greenhouse effect" - what does "runaway" mean in this case?

Earth's Climate Change

The Evidence for Global Warming
Studying the differences between the atmospheres of Earth, Venus and Mars is not just an academic exercise. Comparing atmospheres tells us how atmospheres work and warns us that we may be changing Earth's atmosphere at our peril. Or maybe not. Below are two theories of climate change. They have radically different implications for predicting the effects of human activity on the Earth's climate and on the possibility of life existing elsewhere.

First, let us look at the evidence for climate change on Earth. There is a great deal of talk in the public media about "global warming" - what is the evidence? Look at these graphs of global climate change.

The top plot is for long term variations - over hundreds of thousands of years. The bottom one is for the past 150 years. They both have temperature as the left axis and carbon dioxide concentration on the right axis. How these data obtained? Well, for the modern data we can just average measurements of temperature taken all over the world. The carbon monoxide measurements are made at a few special atmospheric observatories (such as the one run by the National Center for Atmospheric Research on Mauna Loa, Hawaii). The long-term data come from ice cores from the Greenland icesheets. The ratio of oxygen isotopes is believed to be an accurate indicator of temperature, so by measuring the oxygen isotope and CO2 concentrations with depth down a core we can get an estimate of the climate at the time that the layer of ice was deposited.

The temperature scales are in degrees Celsius as the change from average values in the 1970s. The CO2 concentration scale is in parts of CO2 per million parts of air ("parts" just means volume - so that 300 parts per million of CO2 means that for every million cubic meters of air, there is 300 cubic meters of CO2). The important things to notice, however, are the changes in these quantities with time. Look at how the red CO2 concentration lines match the black temperature lines. This just says that it is warmer when the CO2 concentration is higher.
(15) (a) How is a warmer temperature consistent with more CO2 in the atmosphere?

(b) About 140 thousand years ago there was a large increase in temperature and CO2 concentration. By how many degrees did the temperature increase? How much did the CO2 concentration increase?

(c) These long-term variations are believed to be caused by wobbles in the Earth's orbit and the tilt of the Earth's spin axis. The times of colder temperatures are often called "ice ages" since there were extensive glaciers that spread south from artic regions into the mid-latitudes. From the plot you can see that there are roughly 2 timesscales - one between deep, freezing temperatures (or between very hot spells - this is perhaps easier to measure) and the other, much shorter variations. What are the two timescales for these variations?

(d) Now, look at the lower plot of modern variations. Note that the temperature scale has now changed to a range of -0.8 C to +0.4 C - about a factor of 10 smaller range that the upper plot. How much is the variation in average, global temperature from year to year?

(e) How much is the variation in temperature, smoothing out the year-to-year variations, over the past 150 years? Are YOU convinced that there is global warming?

(f) The red plot is really as much a plot of human activity as a plot of CO2 concentration. What are the ways in which human activity contributes to CO2 production?

(g) What is the prognosis for the future? The top plot shows that the Earth has suffered much larger ranges in CO2 and temperature in the distant past. What would be the impact on present flora and fauna - including humans - of similar ice ages / global warmings?

Climate Models
So far we have explored the effects of distance of a planet from the Sun, albedo and greenhouse gases on a planet's surface temperature. We are able to do a reasonable job of modeling the temperature of the planets - at least to an accuracy of a few degrees. However, the Earth's environment is very sensitive to small changes in temperature. A few degrees can have drastic effects on vegetation and melting of the ice caps (which would flood low-lying areas of land), for example. This means that the effects of changing the composition of the atmosphere need to be calculated with sophisticated models.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (up on the mesa above Boulder) have developed models of the atmosphere that include many more effects - multiple layers, clouds, geographical variations across the globe, coupling to the oceans, etc.; in their Global Climate Models (GCMs). For an example, go to the Genesis site. Clicking on a picture will give you a full-page version.

(16) (a) What are the NCAR scientists predicting for the increase in the amount of carbon dioxide over the next
    (i) 20 years?
    (iI) 300 years?

(b) What are the predicted changes in temperature

(i) in your current location?
(ii) maximum on the globe?
(iii) minimum on the globe?

(Note: Only values for the continents are valid - ignore the ocean and Greenland icecaps.)

(c) Described the changes in vegetation that are predicted by the NCAR model.

If you click on the word CHANGE (highlighted in blue at the top of the page) you will go to a site that has little movies showing the deforestation. If you click on "QT" you can download QuickTime movies.

This issue of whether there are going to be major changes to the habitability of Earth due to human activity is a major political issue and one that affects everyone on the planet - though the people who are causing the changes (e.g. by generating CO2) are not necessarily those who will be affected the most. Here is an article from an international paper The Guardian Weekly, November 8, 1998, that discusses results of climate models presented at a meeting for talks on controlling CO2 production.

(17) What are the predictions discussed in the article in terms of
    (a) flooding
    (b) temperature
    (c) food production?

Theories of Planetary Climate Change

These models are just for the Earth. The political issues of global warming are very immediate for us on Earth. In a more philosophical way, we can look at the Earth as the only (seriously) habitable planet in the solar system and wonder what the implications may be. Here are 2 ideas about planetary climates:


Basic Idea = the Earth is just in the right place. A little farther away from the Sun and you get a "runaway icebox" (Mars) and a little closer to the Sun and you get a "runaway greenhouse" (Venus).


Basic Idea = Earth's biosphere is self-stabilizing (Gaia hypothesis).  The biosphere on the Earth adapts to maintain its existence - it reacts to changes in climate to maintain a habitable environment.
(18) Which theory do you think is closer to the truth?

What Happened on Mars?

While Venus is much more similar to Earth, in size and location, Mars is more likely to have had life. Yet, presently there is no evidence of life existing on Mars right now. An important factor is Mars' tenuous atmosphere. As we discovered when discussing erosion in session 12, there is plenty of evidence of there having been liquid water on the surface of Mars in the past. What happened to Mars' atmosphere? What happened to the water?

(19) (a) Why does Mars have so much less atmosphere than Earth? (2 reasons)
(b) What factors cause Mars to have fewer volcanoes?
(c) What happened to the water on Mars?

Remind yourself about what causes the seasons on the Earth. Then look at Figure 10.11 and think about the orbit of Mars.

(20) (a) Look up the tilt of the spin axes for Earth, Venus and Mars.
(b)Explain why Earth and Mars have seasons, but Venus does not.
(c) How do seasons on Mars differ from seasons on Earth?
(d) Why does atmospheric pressure on Mars change during the seasons, while atmospheric pressure on Earth remains steady year-round?

Summary - Climate Change

On the topic of the evolution of planetary atmospheres, we are left with lots of questions, rather than facts, to summarize:

Model answers to the comprehension questions.