The Physical Environment

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Energy and Radiation

Global Patterns of Insolation, Net radiation, and Heat 

Patterns of insolation and net radiation which determine the location of plants, animals, climate, soils and other elements of our physical environment can be discerned from Figures 4.25 through 4.27. Figure 4.25 illustrates the latitudinal distribution of incoming solar radiation and outgoing terrestrial radiation.  From approximately 35o N to 35o S latitude (the red area of the graph) there is a surplus of energy as incoming radiation exceeds outgoing. The blue regions indicate that there is more outgoing energy than incoming, yielding a net loss of energy from the Earth's surface. One might ask then why the middle to higher latitudes aren't getting colder through time as a result of the net loss, and the subtropical to equatorial regions getting constantly hotter due to the net gain. The reason is that the energy is redistributed by circulation of the atmosphere and oceans. Heat gained in the tropics is transported poleward by the global circulation of air and warm ocean currents to heat higher latitude regions. Cooler air from the higher latitudes and cold ocean currents push equatorward to cool the lower latitudes. This process of redistributing energy in the Earth system helps maintain a long-term energy balance.

Latitudinal variation of the radiation balance

Figure 4.25 Latitudinal Variation of the Radiation Balance


Figure 4.25 simplifies the geographic distribution of insolation. For the Earth as a whole, particular patterns can be accounted for by variation in surface features that impact insolation. Insolation maxima are found in the tropical and subtropical deserts of the earth. Here, high sun angles and a lack of cloud cover in desert regions allow much solar radiation to the surface. Insolation decreases to a minimum at the poles where low sun angles and the fact that the Sun doesn't rise above the horizon nearly half the year reduces annual insolation. 

Global annual insolation

Figure 4.26 Annual global distribution of solar radiation (Kcal/cm2)
(after Sellers, W. D., 1965)
Click image to enlarge

Net radiation

Net radiation exhibits a different pattern from that of insolation. Maximum net radiation is found over the tropical and subtropical oceans. The sun angle is always high over the tropical oceans so the surface receives intense radiation throughout the year. With an high sun angle the albedo of the surface is low and absorption is high. However, the energy received is partitioned into warming the surface as well as evaporating water. The result is a lower surface temperature than one might expect with such high sun angles. Additionally, the high specific heat of water means that it takes much more energy to heat a unit mass of water than that of land, resulting in lower ocean surface temperatures. With lower surface temperatures the water surface does not radiate as much longwave radiation out to the atmosphere as nearby land at the same latitude. With much radiation coming in and little going out, the net value is large compared to land at the same latitude. Net radiation is at a minimum over the poles as the sunlight that comes in at a low angle is reflected from the ice-covered surface. Combined with the long polar night, very little net radiation is found at these latitudes.

Figure 4.27 Annual global distribution of net radiation (Kcal/cm2)
(after Sellers, W. D., 1965)
Click image to enlarge

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For Citation: Ritter, Michael E. The Physical Environment: an Introduction to Physical Geography.
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©2003 - 2016 Michael Ritter (
Last revised 6/5/12

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