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Aqueous Vapor In Relation To The Terrestrial Temperatures

( Originally Published 1905 )

We are now fully prepared for a result which, without such preparation, might appear incredible. Water is, to some extent, a volatile body, and our atmosphere, resting as it does upon the surface of the ocean, receives from it a continual supply of aqueous vapor. It would be an error to confound clouds or fog, or any visible mist, with the vapor of water, which is a perfectly impalpable gas, diffused, even on the clearest days, throughout the atmosphere. Compared with the great body of the air, the aqueous vapor it contains is of almost infinitesimal amount, 99 1/2 out of every 100 parts of the atmosphere being composed of oxygen and nitrogen. In the absence of experiment, we should never think of ascribing to this scant and varying constituent any important influence on terrestrial radiation; and yet its influence is far more potent than that of the great body of the air. To say that on a day of average humidity in England, the atmospheric vapor exerts 100 times the action of the air itself, would certainly be an understatement of the fact. Comparing a single molecule of aqueous vapor with an atom of either of the main constituents of our atmosphere, I am not prepared to say how many thousand times the action of the former exceeds that of the latter.

But it must be borne in mind that these large numbers depend, in part, on the extreme feebleness of the air; the power of aqueous vapor seems vast, because that of the air with which it is compared is infinitesimal. Absolutely considered, however, this substance, notwithstanding its small specific gravity, exercises a very potent action. Probably from 10 to 15 per cent of the heat radiated from the earth is absorbed within 10 or 20 feet of the earth's surface. This must evidently be of the utmost consequence to the life of the world. Imagine the superficial molecules of the earth agitated with the motion of heat, and imparting it to the surrounding ether; this motion would be carried rapidly away, and lost forever to our planet, if the waves of ether had nothing but the air to contend with in their outward course. But the aqueous vapor takes up the motion, and becomes thereby heated, thus wrapping the earth like a warm garment, and protecting its surface from the deadly chill which it would otherwise sustain. Various philosophers have speculated on the influence of an atmospheric envelope. De Saussure, Fourier, M. Pouillet, and Mr. Hopkins have, one and all, enriched scientific literature with contributions on this subject, but the considerations which these eminent men have applied to atmospheric air, have, if my experiments be correct, to be transferred to the aqueous vapor.

The observations of meteorologists furnish important, though hitherto unconscious, evidence of the influence of this agent. Wherever the air is dry we are liable to daily extremes of temperature. By day, in such places, the sun's heat reaches the .earth unimpeded, and renders the maxi-mum high; by night, on the other hand, the earth's heat escapes unhindered into space, and renders -the minimum low. Hence the difference between the maximum and minimum is greatest where the air is driest. In the plains of India, on the heights of the Himalaya, in Central Asia, in Australia—wherever drought reigns, we have the heat of day forcibly contrasted with the chill of night, In the Sahara itself, when the sun's rays cease to impinge on the burning soil, the temperature runs rapidly down to freezing, because there is no vapor overhead to check the calorific drain. And here another instance might be added to the numbers already known, in which nature tends, as it were, to check her own excess. By nocturnal refrigeration, the aqueous vapor of the. air is condensed to water on the surface of the earth; and, as only the superficial portions radiate, the act of condensation makes water the radiating body. Now, experiment proves that to the rays emitted by water, aqueous vapor is especially opaque.

Hence the very act of condensation, consequent on terrestrial cooling, becomes a safeguard to the earth, imparting to its radiation that particular character which renders it most liable to be prevented from escaping into space.

It might, however, be urged that, inasmuch as we de-rive all our heat from the sun, the self-same covering which protects the earth from chill must also shut out the solar radiation. This is partially true, but only partially; the sun's rays are different in quality from the earth's rays, and it does not at all follow that the substance which absorbs the one must necessarily absorb the other. Through a layer of water, for example, one-tenth of an inch in thickness, the sun's rays are transmitted with comparative freedom; but through a layer half this thickness, as Melloni has proved, no single ray from the warmed earth could pass. In like manner, the sun's rays pass with comparative freedom through the aqueous vapor of the air: the absorbing power of this substance being mainly exerted upon the invisible heat that endeavors to escape from the earth. In consequence of this differential action upon solar and terrestrial heat, the mean temperature of our planet is higher than is due to its distance from the sun.

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