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Open letter to science editors



C. Leroy Ellenberger

The last two issues of KRONOS have reported evidence for a significant internal heat source on Venus supplementing the greenhouse effect. The update in KRONOS VI:3 (pp. 96-7) closed with a caveat regarding premature claims for the sufficiency of the greenhouse effect. Coincident with its writing, NASA issued News Release No. 8146 (April 6, 1981) entitled "Searing Venus Surface Heat Is Caused By Greenhouse Effect". The opening sentence declared: "Using NASA's PIONEER-Venus spacecraft data, a team of scientists has virtually proved that the searing 482 degree Celsius . . . surface temperature of Venus is due to an atmospheric greenhouse effect [emphasis added]." This is not entirely correct because the lower Russian Venera water vapor measurement was used. The ending ventured: "Finally, Venus' planet-wrapping haze layer provides a 'cap' to the greenhouse, explaining the last 12 to 15C . . . of temperature. These calculations, in general, balanced the amount of sunlight absorbed with the heat radiated to get the temperature at various points [emphasis added]." According to the modelling, carbon dioxide takes up 55% of the heat; water, 25%; cloud and haze, 15%; and sulfur dioxide, 5%.

The news release was obviously based solely on the greenhouse work done under James B. Pollack at NASA Ames Research Center which had been published in J. Geophys. Res., Vol. 85, No. A13, pp. 8223-31, Dec. 30, 1980. The measured thermal imbalance indicating the possibility of an internal heat source was not mentioned. However, just because a greenhouse model is able to produce Venus's surface temperature does not automatically invalidate the measured thermal imbalance because the calculations are not definitive. They are subject to a number of uncertainties and approximations [e.g., see George R. Talbott in KRONOS V:1 (1979), pp. 79-82]. The theoretical sufficiency of the greenhouse effect is irrelevant if the thermal imbalance is real.

The blatant bias in the NASA release was hardly compensated by the qualifications emphasized in the quotes above. As might be expected, when articles based on the NASA release appeared, the qualifications had disappeared and none mentioned the conflicting findings reported in the last two issues of KRONOS. For example, New Scientist's coverage [23 April 1981, p. 220] began: "Data from the probes dropped into the atmosphere of Venus . . . indicate that the searing 482C temperatures at the planet's surface are a result of the greenhouse effect...." NS added that "the efficiency of the greenhouse is enhanced because at high pressure carbon dioxide absorbs radiation further into the infrared than it could under the pressure at the surface of the Earth".

Meanwhile, F. W. Taylor continues analyzing the orbiter measurements in an attempt to reduce the error bars around the heat flux components. KRONOS has learned that he hopes to complete this work in time for the International Conference on the Venus Environment at NASA Ames, November 1-6, 1981. NASA's proclaimed sufficiency for the greenhouse effect on Venus has been at the least premature, if not wrong.

C. Leroy Ellenberger

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