Weather and the Earth's Heat Engine

by Fernando Caracena ©Fernando Caracena 2023

Heat powers the Universe

A previous post, Grokking Thermodynamics, discusses how heat operates to cause all kinds of motions. Basically, heat is a form of energy that is transmitted across the universe. Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that focuses on the physical effects of heat: how it moves and how it motivates the motion of matter on the scales larger than the molecular. Since heat is energy, the flow of heat is power.

Energy is not anything static; it is constant movement. But wait, didn't Einstein say, E = Mc2, i.e., mass and energy are equivalent? Yes, but the energy involved in mass is not static. Nothing in the universe exists without motion. What we have here is energy that is somehow trapped by being bent back on itself like a dog chasing its own tail. It is in some kind of standing wave pattern, only part of which extends into our range of our perception. Things in the physical world are composed of energy trapped in what are called stationary states that project a form outward into our space, which is part of the fabric of physical reality. Even space itself is a form of energy that results from zero point motions of various field, which cannt be extracted bu ordinary means.

The Sun's Power the Earth's Atmospheric and Oceanic Heat Engine

The sun drives the Earth's atmosphere and oceans as parts of a global heat engine, which uses these fluids as working substances. This heat engine distributes heat throughout the globe and through the depth of the troposphere in a way that maintains for all organisms and to circulate vital products from each to type to others that depend on thos products. Let me remind you of some science 101 stuff: plants breath in carbon dioxide and breath out oxygen and water vapor; nd animals breather in oxygen ans breathe out carbon dioxide. Plants and animals have a symbiotic relationship in the compounds they ingest and excrete. The sun in addition to motivating the giant oceanic-atmospheric heat engine, also provides the energy that supports the two symbiotic life forms of the planet. The plant life is very important in regulating temperature and humidity of the earths surface in a way that promotes the healthy growth of living matter.

The heat engine, discussed here, drives ocean and atmospheric currents that form the Earth's circulatory system. This circulation communicates mutually necessary products with each other of the two types of life forms and thereby maintains organic symbiotic relationships of animals and plants at a distance.

Plants process use the energy of photons received from sunlight to drive a series of chemical quantum mechanical process that reprocesses carbon dioxide and water molecules into sugars and excess oxygen. Plants use some of these product for themselves, but export an excess of this energy into the atmosphere as oxygen. Animals eat the hydrocarbons that plants produce and breath in oxygen, which they recombine as carbon dioxide water and other solid wastes. They exhale the caarbon dioxide. Here we see that the sun drives a huge recycling operation that maintains a living planet. Get rid of either oxygen or carbon dioxide and you kill most of the life on this planet. Get rid of water vapor and the heat engine of the atmosphere stops working. Life on the solid surface of the earth begins to fail.

Nitrogen, almost chemically inactive, is also a critical component of our atmosphere. It contributes a global warming effect merely through its presence in increasing the surface pressure o f the atmosphere, See, Planetary Warming: Back to Basics. Here thunderstorms come into play. The lightning that they produce, generate tons of nitrates in the atmosphere that rain down as a weak fertilizer for the plant life.

Attacking the various vital atmospheric substances mentioned above is silly ass and quixotic.

I was prompted to write this post by an pointy egghead article I read that I think misses the point of the whole plantatery circulation response to solar heating: "Deserts cool the planet by reflecting solar radiation to space; vegetated areas have an overall warming effect, so planting trees in deserts doesn’t necessarily cool the planet".

Hey guys, it feels very hot on the desert. At 120 F+. the heat is terrible. You need a lot of life support under these conditions. I remember going to a workshop in Phoenix. At midnight, the temperature was 110 F. I was curious what that would feel like at night. Stepping outside briefly. I gasped. It was a nightmare of heat. But the academic tells me, it is cooling the planet. If you live in Phoenix, do you really care? Gee, if I turn up the air conditioner and it blows more heat into the mix outside, am I also cooling the planet?

The above are the kind of naive questions that come up in political discussions among scientific dummies. To say, "I have the science on my side", is a bald faced display of their deep ignorance of science. The scientific approach involves a well developed methodology of trial and error approach coupled with deep logical thinking.

The answer to scientific questions does not come from naive syllogisms. It comes form hard work and long hours in the laboratory and trying to make sense of empirical laws through logic. The logical structures so developed are theories, which in physics are expressed in the form of equations.

Physicist have found that heat, a form of energy, can transfer part of that energy to a mechanism by doing work. A heat engine does that by having heat supplied from some heat source, followed by the gas expanding and cooling, in the process transferring most of heat involved form a heato source to a cooler heat sink.

The working of all heat engines has a theoretical limit to the efficiency of energy extracted by a heat engine through an idealized thermodynamic cycle called the Carnot cycle (1824) after its proponent Nicolas Léonard Sadi Carnot. Actually, the most efficient heat engine cycle is made possible because it uses a reversible thermodynamic process. The Carnot cycle is reversible (isentropic), which means that it also governs reverse heat engines, which are refrigerators that use mechanical energy to pump heat from a cool reservoir to a hot reservoir.

Although important to us, reversible thermodynamic processes, are only part of the reality of how things work under the flow of energy. Processes driven far from equilibrium develop dissipative structures that are the subject of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, which I began with in my graduate studies. I studied a lot of Bogolubov's work on this subject. It made my head spin. I was not scientifically mature enough for this level of study.

Reversibility and irreversibility have a bearing in other areas, for example in computing. The computer is an information processing machine. Heat generated by computers represents information scattered into randomize thermal information on a small scale, which we feel as heat [see, The Future of Computing Depends on Making It Reversible]. Heat generated therefore represents information loss. The most efficient computers will be those that can operate the closet to being adiabatic.

A discussion of dissipative structures and nonequilibrium thermodynamics would be a serious distraction to the subject treated here; however, I have offered bits and pieces of such a discussion in past posts. Look at: Spontaneous Order and Dissipative Structures, also Substance and Form–Philosophy and Physics Part III.

The important takeaway here is that nature's operations are very subtle. They need to be studied very carefully if they are to direct any sane political action that attempts to benefit humanity. Scientific has been left behind in this technological bottom-line-oriented age. Unfortunately, funding of true science is politically based--an attempt to win science to the support of a particular political position. If humanity is to achieve its most efficient and productive operation for the common good, we must invest in the pursuit of truth, even if the results have an adverse effect on our political position.

What is very interesting here is that the pursuit of truth with regard to planetary atmospheric processes yields results that can guide humanity in acting in a way that is in harmony with the operation of nature. And that there are broad principles that guide our best course of action. For example, if atmospheric processes are parts of a heat engine driven by the sun, attacking "global warming" by throwing reflective junk into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space may just have the opposite effect. Or, there may be some cooling effect through the way chosen to measure things throughout the depth of the atmosphere, but in the meantime, people are dying at the surface from heat stroke.

We cannot understand that entirety of physical reality, except by successive approximations called theories. As Einstein said that theories are free inventions of the mind prompted by seeing patterns in the databases collected from experiments. As we build on existing theories using new tools and, we are forced to modify those theories as new results contradict the old theories. If when trying to do something real we violate principles that are fairly close to the truth, we are gambling against any odds of success. Engineers look to science to give them better tools. Technologists perform what look like miracles to the citizenry. The citizens seeing this as magic are likely to support raw technology, but they do not insist in supporting science for its own sake because the pursuit of truth seems so abstract. Yet without support from scientific truth the modern world would crash.

Revised 29 September 2023.

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