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10.13: Thermal Energy Transfer in the Atmosphere

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    Can you see energy moving?

    Energy constantly moves all around us! Anything that moves has kinetic energy, and you can see light energy and feel thermal energy in a chemical reaction or a campfire. Moving energy in the atmosphere sometimes makes itself visible in the way it moves air. In this photo, differences in temperature are causing air to move—in fantastic ways!

    How Energy Moves Through the Atmosphere

    Energy travels through space or material. Thermal energy is transferred in three ways: radiation, conduction, and convection.


    Radiation is the transfer of energy by waves. Energy can travel as electromagnetic waves through air or empty space. The Sun's energy travels through space by radiation. After sunlight heats the planet's surface, some heat radiates back into the atmosphere.


    In conduction, thermal energy is transferred from molecule to molecule by contact. Warmer molecules vibrate faster than cooler ones. They bump into the cooler molecules. When they do, they transfer some of their energy. Conduction happens mainly in the lower atmosphere. Can you explain why?


    Convection is the transfer of thermal energy by a current. Convection happens in a liquid or a gas. Air near the ground is warmed by heat radiating from Earth's surface. The warm air is less dense, so it rises. As it rises, it cools. The cool air is dense, so it sinks to the surface. This creates a convection current (Figure below). Convection is the most important way that heat travels in the atmosphere.

    Diagram of a convection current

    Convection currents are the main way that heat moves through the atmosphere. Why does warm air rise?


    • In conduction, heat moves from areas of more heat to areas of less heat. The substances must be in direct contact.
    • In convection, materials move depending on their heat relative to nearby materials.
    • In radiation, energy moves by waves.


    1. What is moving in conduction?
    2. What is moving in convection?
    3. What is radiation?

    10.13: Thermal Energy Transfer in the Atmosphere is shared under a CK-12 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by CK-12 Foundation via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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