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NDBC Science Education Pages

What causes the difference in air temperature between a land surface and a body of water?

To answer the question, we have to consider the various ways in which heat travels around and through objects.

Conduction and Convection Example

Radiation Example

There are three methods of heat travel:

  • CONDUCTION -- The transfer of heat through a medium. This is how we cook food on top of a stove. The heat from the stove burner is conducted through a medium (a metal pot) to the food.
  • CONVECTION -- The transfer of heat due to the physical movement of an object. We can observe convection by looking at a pot of boiling water. Have you ever noticed that when a pot of water is boiling, the water seems to follow a vertical circular motion? This is convection. The parcel of heated water at the bottom of the pot rises, as it rises it gives off some of its heat. Because it loses some heat, the parcel is cooler than the surrounding water. It then sinks to the bottom of the pot and the process is started again. The path of the rising water followed by the sinking water traces out a circle.
  • RADIATION -- The transfer of heat by means of waves. This is the most difficult method of heat transfer to understand. Yet, we experience it every day. We feel the effects of radiation whenever we stand near a stove or oven which is being used. We feel the heat radiating from the stove or oven to our skin. Similarly, we have all been outside on a sunny, hot Summer's day. If we look up to the sky we can feel the rays of the Sun hitting our faces. The Sun is radiating its heat to the Earth.

    Air Temperature Graph

    It is through one of the above processes of heat transfer that causes the air temperature at deep-ocean station 41001 to be warmer than that of land station CLKN7 during the winter months. Which process do you believe to be the cause of the air temperature differences between these two stations? I'll give you a hint, it has something to do with the temperature of the ocean water.

    Lets look at a graph of both the average air and water temperatures from Station 41001.

    As you can see from the graph, the January (month 1) and February (month 2) water temperatures are about 20 degrees while the respective air temperatures are about 15 degrees. This is a 5 degree difference in temperature between the air and the water at the same geographical location!!

    We can figure out what heat transfer process is influencing the air temperature at station 41001 by applying the three methods to our situation and then we can choose the one that seems most logical.

    First, lets look at conduction. This process involves the transfer of heat through a conductive medium. Well, nothing exists between the air and the water surface. In our situation, the heat is going directly from the water to the air without passing through a conductive medium. Therefore, this is not the applicable process that is causing the warm winter-time air temperatures at station 41001.

    Convection involves the movement of heated objects. The physical movement must be a result of the heating, such as with the pot of boiling water where the vertical movement is caused by the intense heat applied to the bottom of the pot. Because the ocean water isn't moving into or through the atmosphere as a result of the sun's heating of the water, convection isn't the process influencing air and water temperature difference. Ocean water is moving through the lower few feet of the air as ocean surface waves, but this doesn't occur because of the sun's heat.

    The final process, radiation, is causing the winter-time air temperatures over water to be warmer than the winter-time air temperatures over land. The heat of the ocean is being given off (radiated) into the air, thus making the air substantially warmer.

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