The atmospheres of terrestrial planets are expected to be in long-term radiation balance: an increase in the absorption of solar radiation warms the surface and troposphere, which leads to a matching increase in the emission of thermal radiation. Warming a wet planet such as Earth would make the atmosphere moist and optically thick such that only thermal radiation emitted from the upper troposphere can escape to space. Hence, for a hot moist atmosphere, there is an upper limit on the thermal emission that is unrelated to surface temperature. If the solar radiation absorbed exceeds this limit, the planet will heat uncontrollably and the entire ocean will evaporate—the so-called runaway greenhouse. Here we model the solar and thermal radiative transfer in incipient and complete runaway greenhouse atmospheres at line-by-line spectral resolution using a modern spectral database. We find a thermal radiation limit of 282 W m−2 (lower than previously reported) and that 294 W m−2 of solar radiation is absorbed (higher than previously reported). Therefore, a steam atmosphere induced by such a runaway greenhouse may be a stable state for a planet receiving a similar amount of solar radiation as Earth today. Avoiding a runaway greenhouse on Earth requires that the atmosphere is subsaturated with water, and that the albedo effect of clouds exceeds their greenhouse effect. A runaway greenhouse could in theory be triggered by increased greenhouse forcing, but anthropogenic emissions are probably insufficient.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Simpson, G. C. Some studies in terrestrial radiation. Mem. R. Meterol. Soc. 11, 69–95 (1927).
Nakajima, S., Hayashi, Y-Y. & Abe, Y. A study of the runaway greenhouse effect with a one-dimensional radiative–convective model. J. Atmos. Sci. 49, 2256–2266 (1992).
Komabayashi, M. Discrete equilibrium temperatures of a hypothetical planet with the atmosphere and the hydrosphere of a one component–two phase system under constant solar radiation. J. Meteorol. Soc. Jpn 45, 137–139 (1967).
Ingersoll, A. P. The runaway greenhouse: A history of water on Venus. J. Atmos. Sci. 26, 1191–1198 (1969).
Goldblatt, C. & Watson, A. J. The runaway greenhouse: Implications for future climate change, geoengineering and planetary atmospheres. Phil. Trans. 370, 4197–4216 (2012).
Pollack, J. B. A nongrey calculation of the runaway greenhouse: Implications for Venus’ past and present. Icarus 14, 295–306 (1971).
Watson, A. J., Donahue, T. M. & Kuhn, W. R. Temperatures in a runaway greenhouse on the evolving Venus Implications for water loss. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 68, 1–6 (1984).
Abe, Y. & Matsui, T. Evolution of an impact generated H2O–CO2 atmosphere and formation of a hot proto-ocean on Earth. J. Atmos. Sci. 45, 3081–3101 (1988).
Kasting, J. F. Runaway and moist greenhouse atmospheres and the evolution of Earth and Venus. Icarus 74, 472–494 (1988).
Rennó, N. O. Multiple equilibria in radiative-convective atmospheres. Tellus A 49, 423–438 (1997).
Pierrehumbert, R. T. Principles of Planetary Climate 652 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).
Segura, T., Mckay, C. & Toon, O. An impact-induced, stable, runaway climate on mars. Icarus 220, 144–148 (2012).
Hansen, J. Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Bloomsbury, 2009).
Kasting, J. F. & Ackerman, T. P. Climatic consequences of very high-carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s early atmosphere. Science 234, 1383–1385 (1986).
Kasting, J. F., Whitmere, D. P. & Reynolds, R. T. Habitable zones around main sequence stars. Icarus 101, 108–128 (1993).
Abe, Y. Physical state of the very early Earth. Lithos 30, 223–235 (1993).
Batalha, N. M. et al. Planetary Candidates Observed by Kepler, III: Analysis of the First 16 Months of Data. Astrophys. J. Supp. 204 (2013).
Ishiwatari, M., Nakajima, K., Takehiro, S. & Hayashi, Y-Y. Dependence of climate states of gray atmosphere on solar constant: From the runaway greenhouse to the snowball states. J. Geophys. Res. 112, D13120 (2007).
Rothman, L. S. et al. HITEMP, the high-temperature molecular spectroscopic database. J. Quant. Spect. Ra. Tran. 111, 2139–2150 (2010).
Baranov, Y., Lafferty, W., Ma, Q. & Tipping, R. Water-vapor continuum absorption in the 800–1250 cm−1 spectral region at temperatures from 311 to 363 K. J. Quant. Spect. Ra. Tran. 109, 2291–2302 (2008).
Pierrehumbert, R. T. Thermostats, radiator fins and the local runaway greenhouse. J. Atmos. Sci. 52, 1784–1806 (1995).
Zhang, Y. C., Rossow, W. B., Lacis, A. A., Oinas, V. & Mishchenko, M. I. Calculation of radiative fluxes from the surface to top of atmosphere based on ISCCP and other global data sets: Refinements of the radiative transfer model and the input data. J. Geophys. Res. 109, D19105 (2004).
Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T. & Kiehl, J. T. Earth’s global energy budget. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 90, 311–324 (2009).
Goldblatt, C. & Zahnle, K. J. Clouds and the faint young sun paradox. Clim. Past 7, 203–220 (2011).
Soden, B. & Held, I. An assessment of climate feedbacks in coupled ocean–atmosphere models. J. Clim. 19, 3354–3360 (2006).
Zachos, J., Pagani, M., Sloan, L., Thomas, E. & Billups, K. Trends, rhythms, and aberrations in global climate 65 Ma to present. Science 292, 686–693 (2001).
Archer, D. & Brovkin, V. The millennial atmospheric lifetime of anthropogenic CO2 . Climatic Change 90, 283–297 (2008).
Donahue, T. M., Hoffman, J. H., Hodges, R. R. & Watson, A. J. Venus was wet—a measurement of the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen. Science 216, 630–633 (1982).
Goldblatt, C. et al. Nitrogen-enhanced greenhouse warming on early earth. Nature Geosci. 2, 891–896 (2009).
Li, K-F., Pahlevan, K., Kirschvink, J. L. & Yung, Y. L. Atmospheric pressure as a natural climate regulator for a terrestrial planet with a biosphere. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 9576–9579 (2009).
Manabe, S. & Wetherald, R. D. Thermal equilibrium of the atmosphere with a given distribution of relative humidity. J. Atmos. Sci. 24, 241–259 (1967).
Forster, P. M. d. F., Freckleton, R. S. & Shine, K. P. On aspects of the concept of radiative forcing. Clim. Dyn. 13, 547–560 (1997).
Rothman, L. S. et al. The HITRAN 2008 molecular spectroscopic database. J. Quant. Spectrosc. Ra. Trans. 110, 533–572 (2009).
Ptashnik, I. V., Shine, K. P. & Vigasin, A. A. Water vapour self-continuum and water dimers: 1. Analysis of recent work. J. Quant. Spect. Ra. Trans. 112, 1286–1303 (2011).
Clough, S., Kneizys, F. & Davies, R. R. Line shape and the water vapor continuum. Atmos. Res. 23, 229–241 (1989).
Harvey, A. H., Gallagher, J. S. & Leverlt Sengers, J. M. H. Revised formulation for the refractive indices of water and steam as a function of wavelength, temperature and density. J. Phys. Chem. Ref. Data 27, 761–774 (1998).
Meadows, V. S. & Crisp, D. Ground-based near-infrared observations of the Venus nightside: The thermal structure and water abundance near the surface. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 4595–4622 (1996).
Stamnes, K., Tsay, S-C., Wiscombe, W. & Jayaweera, K. Numerically stable algorithm for discrete-ordinate-method radiative transfer in multiple scattering and emitting layered media. Appl. Opt. 27, 2502–2509 (1988).
Collins, W. D. et al. Radiative forcing by well-mixed greenhouse gases: Estimates from climate models in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report (AR4). J. Geophys. Res. 111, D14317 (2006).
Moss, R. et al. Towards New Scenarios for Analysis of Emissions, Climate Change, Impacts, and Response Strategies. Tech. Rep. (IPCC 2008).
We thank D. Catling, J. Kasting, R. Pierrehumbert and A. Watson for discussions at various stages in the project, and D. Abbot for a constructive review. Contributions to this work were financially supported by NASA Planetary Atmospheres and NSERC Discovery grants awarded to C.G. and by the NASA Astrobiology Institute Virtual Planetary Laboratory.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Goldblatt, C., Robinson, T., Zahnle, K. et al. Low simulated radiation limit for runaway greenhouse climates. Nature Geosci 6, 661–667 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1892
Nature Geoscience (2021)
Space Science Reviews (2020)
Space Science Reviews (2018)
Nature Geoscience (2017)