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Low simulated radiation limit for runaway greenhouse climates

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 27 November 2014

This article has been updated


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.

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Figure 1: Spectra and effective absorption and emission levels in a pure water atmosphere.
Figure 2: Top of atmosphere fluxes from a pure water atmosphere.
Figure 3: Spectra of thermal emission level and outgoing thermal radiation for transitional atmospheres.
Figure 4: Top of atmosphere fluxes from transitional atmospheres.
Figure 5: Top of atmosphere fluxes from an ideal gas atmosphere with a varying amount of background gas (nitrogen).

Change history

  • 27 December 2014

    In the version of this Article originally published, in two places a typographical error led to the wrong value appearing for solar radiation absorbed; it should have read 286 W m-2 throughout. The incorrect value was not used in calculations. There was a small error in our summation of solar fluxes at different zenith angles in the version of our numerical model used to make Fig. 4. As a result, our model yielded net solar flux values that were a few W m-2 too high. We reran our numerical simulations with the corrected calculation of solar fluxes. An updated model output archive is provided in the Supplementary Information. A version of Fig. 4 that accounts for the correction and updated model outputs is reproduced below (no other figures are affected). The only qualitative difference is that the scenario with the greenhouse gas atmosphere labelled as arbitrarily high (purple) has a marginally stable state at around 340 K in the updated version of Fig. 4f. Increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the model reduces the outgoing thermal radiation (Fig. 4e), but has negligible effect on the net absorbed solar radiation (Fig. 4d), so more carbon dioxide would remove this small stable region. As a result of the updated model outputs, in the 'Transition to a runaway greenhouse' section, paragraph four, the top of atmosphere solar and thermal fluxes should have read 260 and 265 W m-2. In the last paragraph of this section, the values for the hump of stability for pre-industrial, RCP 8.5 at 2100 and extreme anthropogenic scenarios should have read 27, 20 and 12 W m-2, respectively. These errors have now been corrected in the online versions of the Article. None of the errors affect the conclusions or implications of the paper.


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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.

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C.G. and K.J.Z. suggested the study. C.G. conducted all of the modelling work, using a model written by D.C., with help from T.D.R. and D.C. All authors contributed to analysing the results.

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Correspondence to Colin Goldblatt.

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Goldblatt, C., Robinson, T., Zahnle, K. et al. Low simulated radiation limit for runaway greenhouse climates. Nature Geosci 6, 661–667 (2013).

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