What Happens When Solar Radiation Hits The Earth?

What happens when solar radiation hits the Earth?

Solar radiation refers to the electromagnetic waves emitted by the Sun. It is mainly comprised of visible light, infrared radiation, and ultraviolet radiation. Solar radiation is essential for life on Earth as it provides the energy that drives biological processes and Earth’s climate.

As solar radiation travels from the Sun to the Earth, it passes through Earth’s atmosphere where much of the harmful ultraviolet radiation is absorbed. The remaining solar radiation that reaches Earth’s surface provides light and heat that sustain plant and animal life. Solar radiation warms the planet’s surface and powers photosynthesis in plants. It also drives weather patterns and ocean currents through the process of evaporation and convection.

However, excessive exposure to solar radiation can also have detrimental effects on humans and the environment. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun is linked to skin cancer, eye damage, and immune system suppression in humans and animals. Solar radiation also influences climate change by affecting cloud formation and global temperatures.

Understanding the complex interactions between solar radiation and Earth’s systems is an important area of scientific research. This overview summarizes the basics of solar radiation and its multifaceted impacts on our planet.

What is Solar Radiation?

Solar radiation refers to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the Sun. It consists of a broad range of wavelengths, including ultraviolet (UV), visible light, and infrared radiation (https://www.iberdrola.com/social-commitment/solar-radiation).

The different types of solar radiation include:

  • Ultraviolet radiation (UV) – shortest wavelengths (10-400 nm)
  • Visible light – wavelengths visible to human eye (400-700 nm)
  • Infrared radiation – longer wavelengths (700 nm – 1 mm)

The solar constant is the amount of incoming solar electromagnetic radiation per unit area that would be incident on a plane perpendicular to the rays, at a distance of one astronomical unit (AU) from the Sun. It has an average value of about 1,360 watts per square meter (W/m2) (https://www.fondriest.com/environmental-measurements/parameters/weather/photosynthetically-active-radiation/).

The Solar Radiation Spectrum

The solar radiation spectrum is the distribution of the Sun’s energy according to wavelength or frequency.Solar radiation can be divided into three main regions based on wavelength – ultraviolet (UV), visible, and infrared radiation (Solar Radiation & Photosynthetically Active Radiation).

Ultraviolet radiation has the shortest wavelengths, from 10 nm to 400 nm. Though UV accounts for just 10% of the total solar radiation, it has very high energy levels and is responsible for sunburn and skin cancer. Visible radiation has wavelengths from 400 nm to 700 nm and accounts for about 50% of the Sun’s energy. This part of the spectrum allows plants to photosynthesize and provides vision for animals. Infrared radiation has the longest wavelengths, from 700 nm to 1 mm, and makes up the remaining 40% of solar energy. Infrared radiation is primarily responsible for heating the Earth’s surface (Solar Radiation Spectrum).

Interaction with the Atmosphere

As solar radiation enters Earth’s atmosphere, it interacts with the different gases, aerosols, clouds, and particulates in the atmosphere in a few key ways: absorption, reflection, and scattering. According to the University of California at Berkeley, around 25% of incoming solar radiation is reflected back to space by clouds, gases, and small particles in the atmosphere. The majority of absorption and reflection occurs in the upper atmosphere. Certain gases like ozone, water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane absorb specific wavelengths of solar radiation, providing the atmosphere with heat energy. Other atmospheric constituents like cloud droplets, ice crystals, and aerosols reflect solar radiation in a process called scattering. Scattering diffuses incoming radiation by redirecting it in multiple directions. Only about 45% of solar radiation reaches the Earth’s surface after atmospheric absorption, reflection, and scattering (Source).

A key component of the upper atmosphere that filters incoming solar radiation is the ozone layer. This layer absorbs over 90% of high frequency ultraviolet solar radiation, shielding the Earth’s surface from these harmful rays that can damage DNA and cause health issues (Source).

Effects on the Troposphere

The troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere, is directly impacted by incoming solar radiation. As sunlight reaches the troposphere, it heats the air causing it to expand. Since hot air is less dense than cold air, this creates upward motion and convection currents. The rising warm air cools as it gains altitude, eventually sinking back down and creating circulation cells. These convection currents are a major driver of weather patterns and phenomena like thunderstorms. They also transport heat from the equator toward the poles, impacting climate on a global scale (Reynolds, 1975).

Solar heating of the troposphere also contributes to temperature gradients between the equator and poles. The equator receives more direct sunlight than the poles, creating warmer temperatures. The temperature contrast between warmer tropical air and colder polar air drives atmospheric circulation cells that attempt to balance out the temperature imbalance. These circulation patterns significantly influence weather and climate. For example, air moving north from the tropics brings warm air and moisture to higher latitudes (Reynolds, 1975). Therefore, solar heating of the troposphere is a primary reason Earth has distinct climate zones ranging from tropical to polar regions.

Heating the Earth’s Surface

Solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface is either absorbed, reflected, or emitted back into the atmosphere. The radiation balance at the surface depends on the surface type. Different surfaces have different albedos – the ratio of reflected to incoming solar radiation. For example, ice and snow have high albedos (up to 0.9) and reflect most of the incoming radiation. In contrast, forests and water have lower albedos (0.1-0.4) and absorb more radiation 1. Desert sands have an albedo around 0.4.

Absorbed radiation heats up the ground surface. The heated ground then emits longwave infrared radiation back towards the atmosphere. Variation in surface types leads to uneven heating of the Earth’s surface. This causes temperature differences that drive weather patterns and climate.


Photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert solar energy into chemical energy. Visible light from the sun provides the energy that drives this process. Plants absorb light primarily in the blue and red wavelengths, which are utilized in the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis to produce ATP and NADPH. These products then fuel the light-independent reactions, in which CO2 is fixed into sugar molecules. Overall, photosynthesis converts solar energy into carbohydrates that plants use for energy and growth [1, 2].

A major byproduct of photosynthesis is oxygen. As plants convert CO2 into biomass, they release oxygen into the atmosphere. This oxygen production helps maintain the balance of gases in the air and provides the oxygen that animals need for cellular respiration. Overall, photosynthesis is crucial for capturing solar energy and powering life on Earth.

Impacts on Human Health

When solar UV radiation reaches the Earth’s surface, it can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on human health. On the positive side, UVB radiation (wavelengths between 290-320 nm) interacts with skin cells to support vitamin D production, which helps regulate calcium absorption and impacts immune function, cell growth, and neuromuscular and cardiovascular health [1]. However, excessive UV exposure from the sun can damage DNA, suppress immune function, and cause skin cancer and eye diseases like cataracts [2].

In particular, UVA radiation (315–400 nm wavelengths) penetrates deep into the dermis layer of skin and can generate reactive oxygen species that damage skin cell DNA, lipids, and proteins. Shorter wavelength UVB radiation (290-315 nm) is mostly absorbed in the epidermis outer skin layer, but can still cause direct DNA damage leading to immunosuppression and skin cancer. In fact, overexposure to solar UV radiation is linked to nearly 65-90% of melanomas and 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers [3]. Minimizing unprotected sun exposure, wearing protective clothing, and using broad spectrum sunscreens are important preventative measures to reduce the risks of UV radiation on human health.

Solar Energy Technologies

Solar energy technologies harness the sun’s energy and convert it into useful forms of energy for electricity, heating, cooling, and lighting homes and businesses. Some major types of solar energy technologies include:

Solar heating systems use solar collectors and a heat transfer fluid to heat water or air. Solar heating technologies can be used for heating swimming pools, homes, businesses, and other facilities (Solar Energy Technologies Office).

Photovoltaics (PV) convert sunlight directly into electricity through solar cells made of semiconducting materials. PV systems range from small rooftop systems that provide energy for homes and businesses, to large utility-scale solar power plants (About the Solar Energy Technologies Office).

Concentrated solar power (CSP) systems use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to drive traditional steam turbines or engines that generate electricity. CSP plants can also store solar energy as heat, allowing power generation when the sun is not shining (About the Solar Energy Technologies Office).


In conclusion, solar radiation is the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the sun, comprising a broad spectrum of wavelengths including visible light, radio waves, x-rays, and gamma rays. As it reaches Earth, solar radiation interacts with the atmosphere and the planet’s surface in important ways. Some key points we covered include:

– Solar radiation is partially absorbed by the atmosphere, with ultraviolet rays absorbed by ozone in the stratosphere and infrared radiation absorbed by greenhouse gases. This filtering effect warms the stratosphere.

– Visible sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface and provides the energy that powers photosynthesis in plants and phytoplankton. This process is vital for almost all life on Earth.

– Solar radiation heats the Earth’s surface and atmosphere, driving convection in the troposphere that creates wind patterns and influences the climate.

– UV radiation can damage human skin and eyes, but is partially blocked by the ozone layer. Ozone depletion has increased UV exposure.

– Technologies like solar panels and solar water heaters can convert sunlight into useful energy through the photovoltaic effect.

In summary, solar radiation makes life possible on Earth by powering photosynthesis and heating the surface. But it can also pose hazards if exposure is excessive. Understanding solar radiation is key to predicting weather and climate patterns, protecting human health, and harnessing the sun’s energy for human use.

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