Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • This chapter is unavailable for purchase
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Thermodynamics in a nutshell



The atmospheres which are our principal objects of study are made of compressible gases. The compressibility has a profound effect on the vertical profile of temperature in these atmospheres. As things progress it will become clear that the vertical temperature variation in turn strongly influences the planet's climate. To deal with these effects it will be necessary to know some thermodynamics – though just a little. This chapter does not purport to be a complete course in thermodynamics. It can only provide a summary of the key thermodynamic concepts and formulae needed to treat the basic problems of planetary climate. It is assumed that the student has obtained (or will obtain) a more fundamental understanding of the general subject of thermodynamics elsewhere.


The temperature profile in Fig. 2.1, measured in the Earth's tropics, introduces most of the features that are of interest in the study of general planetary atmospheres. It was obtained by releasing an instrumented balloon (radiosonde) which floats upward from the ground, and sends back data on temperature and pressure as it rises. Pressure goes down monotonically with height, so the lower pressures represent greater altitudes. The units of pressure used in the figure are millibars (mb). One bar is very nearly the mean sea-level pressure on Earth, and there are 1000 mb in a bar.