Factors Affecting Energy Flow in Earth's Systems

Instructor: Marc Chiacchio

Marc has taught Bachelor level students climate science and has a PhD in climate science.

Factors that affect Earth's systems can occur naturally or through human induced changes. They can alter the energy flow or balance of the Earth. In this lesson, you will learn how factors like volcanoes and vegetation alter this flow.

Concept of Energy Flow

Have you ever noticed when clouds suddenly appear in the sky on a sunny day that it immediately feels cooler? What do you think would happen if we could hypothetically make the sky cloudy everyday for a year? Do you think these clouds would offset global warming as reported in climate science research?

Whether they would offset this warming or not, they would certainly change the Earth's surface temperature over time, either causing it to become warmer or cooler. Clouds are just one of many factors that can affect the Earth's energy flow, or Earth radiation balance. This term is essentially a balance between the incoming energy from the Sun and the outgoing energy to space that is radiated in the form of infrared radiation. Without such a balance, the Earth would either continue to heat up or cool down.

The radiation balance of the Earth.
radiation balance

Whenever a factor such as clouds are introduced, they may affect this balance and result in a radiative forcing. We will now look at other radiative forcing agents and how they might alter the flow of energy into and out of Earth's systems.

Factors Affecting Earth's Energy Flow

Tectonic Events and Ocean Circulation

Nearly everyone is familiar with tectonic events, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, either from watching them on TV or experiencing them firsthand. But do you think that such events could affect the Earth's climate or its energy balance? Well the answer to that question is yes they can. Let's see how this is possible.

If tectonic events can affect the Earth's radiation budget, that means that rocks are connected to the climate. Well not actually the small rocks you see on the ground, but the larger ones beneath you covering thousands of miles in distance. Plate tectonics, or the movement of plates (in an earthquake for example), act as an internal forcing mechanism, or radiative forcing, that occurs within the climate system itself. External forcing, on the other hand, impacts the climate from outside of the climate system such as a volcanic eruption as we will later see.

If you live in an area surrounded by mountains or have visited such places before, they are caused by tectonic activity. These mountains are known to affect the local and regional climate. Also, because of tectonic activity, the continents are always in motion, which affects ocean circulation. Ocean circulation is the movement of large bodies of water and is dependent on the location of the land. If a part of the land is extended due to the movement of the continents, it affects the circulation, which, in turn, affects global climate.

The ocean circulation acts as a conveyor belt that transports the uneven amount of solar energy at the equator towards the poles. Any change in this that system that may be caused by tectonic activity would alter the flow of energy.

The ocean circulation of the Earth.
ocean circulation

Tectonic activity also causes volcanoes to erupt and occurs when plates bombard each other or when they are pulled apart. Once they erupt, they can alter the energy flow of the Earth. For instance, when a volcanic eruption occurs, large amounts of dust particles are injected in the atmosphere for long periods of time.

These particles have a cooling effect on the planet as they reflect the incoming solar radiation. This acts as an external forcing on the climate thereby acting to cool it, which can last months to years, depending on the amount of dust particles in the atmosphere.

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