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temperature, and that this means that (contrary to the model we’ve been working with so far), the temperature of the Earth depends on the composition of the atmosphere.

Here’s a simple account of the physics behind all this. Molecules of different gases have different molecular structures, which (among other things) affects their size and chemical properties. As incoming radiation passes through the atmosphere, it strikes a (quite large) number of different molecules. In some cases, the molecule will absorb a few of the photons (quanta of energy for electromagnetic radiation) as the radiation passes through, which can push some of the electrons in the molecule into an “excited” state. This can be thought of as the electron moving into an orbit at a greater distance from the nucleus, though it is more accurate to simply say that the electron is more energetic. This new excited state is unstable, though, which means that the electron will (eventually) “calm down,” returning to its previous ground state. Because energy is conserved throughout this process, the molecule must re-emit the energy it absorbed during the excitation, which it does in the form of more E/M radiation, which might be of different wavelengths than the energy originally absorbed[1]. Effectively, the gas molecule has “stored” some of the radiation’s incoming energy for a time, only to re-radiate it later.

More technically, the relationship between E/M radiation wavelength and molecular absorption depends on quantum mechanical facts about the structure of the gas molecules populating the atmosphere. The “excited” and “ground” states correspond to electrons transitioning between discrete energy levels, so the wavelengths that molecules are able to absorb and emit depend on facts about which energy levels are available for electrons to


  1. Though, of course, this means that the number of photons will also have to be different, unless the energy difference is accounted for in some other way.

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