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Oceans are water, land is not

It’s been awhile since we’ve had an official weather school lesson. We’ve been going off in a few different directions this past last month or so, but if my memory serves me correctly, the weather topic we left off with was Earth’s general energy balance. With that in mind, this week’s lesson will look at the difference between land and water and how they “manage” the energy coming in from the sun.

In its simplest form, the Earth is composed of two different surfaces: land and water. These two surfaces are not arranged evenly around the planet but are instead broken up into an irregular arrangement of continents and oceans. It’s the differences between the ways land and water absorb and store incoming solar energy, and the irregular distribution of these two surfaces, that greatly influences our planet’s weather.

Land versus water

There are five main differences we will examine this week: evaporation, transparency, specific heat, vertical movement and, finally, horizontal movement.

The first main difference is evaporation. When solar energy strikes water, some of that energy is used to turn the liquid water into water vapour. This energy is absorbed and is stored in the water vapour as latent heat. You can feel this happen when you wet your skin and then let air blow across it. That part of your body feels cooler as heat is being absorbed from your skin to allow the evaporation to take place. Over the entire Earth, it is estimated that nearly 85 per cent of all evaporation takes place over oceans, simply due to the fact that, well, oceans are all water and land surfaces are not. So this means that over water, a large portion of the sun’s energy is being stored as latent heat.

Our second main difference is transparency. We all recognize that if we call something transparent, that usually means we can see through it or that it lets in light. When we compare water to land it becomes pretty obvious that water is much more transparent than land. Over land, the sun’s energy can’t penetrate the ground, so it gets absorbed at the surface. This allows land surfaces to heat up rapidly during the day and to also cool rapidly at night. Over water, the sun’s energy can penetrate as deep as 60 m. This means that the energy is being spread out and absorbed over much, much larger areas. This results in a slower warm-up during the day and a much slower cool-down at night.

The third main difference is tied fairly closely to the previous difference. This difference is known as specific heat. Every substance has its own specific heat value, and that value basically tells us how much energy it takes to heat that substance up. When we compare land and water we find that, given the same volume of each substance, water takes four times as much energy to heat as land. So, if we combine this fact with transparency, we can see that it will take a lot longer to warm up a body of water than it will to warm a land surface. We can see this happen every fall and spring. On a cold fall day you will find that a body of water is much warmer than the land surfaces around it, while in the spring, the land areas warm up quickly while the water struggles to melt the ice.

Land doesn’t move

Our final two differences are movement in both the vertical and horizontal. This one is pretty simple to picture and understand, but it has very large implications for our planet’s weather. When we look at land, for the most part, it doesn’t move. Soil at the surface that warms up quickly doesn’t then move underground, taking its heat with it. Nor does one field get up and move down the road. So land pretty much stays were it is. Water, on the other hand, is almost constantly in motion. The sun warms the top layers the most and these top layers can then be transported downward with wind and currents, warming the deeper layers, and in essence, creating a larger heat storage area.

Even bigger than the vertical movement of water are the ocean’s currents, or horizontal movements. These currents can take energy stored in one part of the ocean and move it to another part. Some of this energy can then be released, moderating the temperature of the area.

In our next weather class we will build on this knowledge by looking at the Earth’s temperature patterns.

About the author

Co-operator contributor

Daniel Bezte

Daniel Bezte is a teacher by profession with a BA (Hon.) in geography, specializing in climatology, from the U of W. He operates a computerized weather station near Birds Hill Park.

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