If a planets atmosphere contains steam how much would be required in order to have a temperature at the bottom, due to the adiabatic temperature gradient, to prevent condensation and thus rain in the lowest layers?

This answers depends on determining the lapse rate for different steam-air mixtures at different temperatures and pressures.

Venus is a good example where conditions exist in the atmosphere to have all three common phases of water. Gaseous vapor up to 25 km, liquid water from 25 to 50 km and solid ice from 50 km and up.

Earth was too hot to have liquid water for half a billion years.


1 Answer 1


I'll add a bit to the question. As most (or all) people should realize, water vapor is a green house gas. The implication in your question is that there is a point where positive feedback from additional water vapor in the atmosphere may lead to a situation where a LOT of water vapor enters the atmosphere, leading to a temperature runaway whereby the surface temperature of the earth is 100 deg C or higher.

This scenario is actually impossible. Water vapor is not only a green house gas, but it is an EXCELLENT heat transfer medium, such that on a mass basis, water has a heat of vaporization that is approximately 4 times that of most other liquids (e.g., hydrocarbons). Given this fact, atmospheric convection currents would carry any additional water vapor high into the atmosphere, where it would radiate energy to outer space, condense, and fall as rain, long before the concentration had a chance to build up to the "boiling seas" situation.

The only way that I can imagine the "boiling seas" scenario would necessarily require a much more dense atmosphere, where the lapse rate was high enough to cause extreme temperatures at ground level. That much gaseous nitrogen and gaseous oxygen currently doesn't exist on earth, and it's non-intuitive how that much extra atmosphere could be generated. In the event that such an atmosphere could be generated, temperatures would rise to the point where the heat transfer from condensing water vapor would balance the radiant heat arriving from the sun, resulting in an "equilibrium" temperature that would meet the conditions of your question. Even then, the oceans wouldn't boil away, because atmospheric pressure would be much higher than it currently is, and the boiling temperature of water would be much higher at sea level as a result.

For people that still have doubts, note that the earth has been around for a LONG time, and experienced various and wide-ranging environmental conditions. There is a lot of empirical evidence that says that the earth has never been in the state described in the question, which strongly implies that there is no net positive feedback loop with respect to water vapor. Positive feedback is inherently unstable, and if it existed, we certainly would have evidence of that fact by now.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for answering but your answer is not really to the question as I meant it. I have thus changed the question. I also think the second section in your answer needs more details. I imagine the atmosphere to be in equilibrium and thus stationary and homogeneous and thus without vertical convection. Maybe the planet has to be more Venus-like (in regard to proximity to the heating star) in order to have a higher surface temperature. With maybe 10 billion planets in a suitable situation, in regard to heating from a star, just in the Milky Way, I don't think this is a unrealistic question. $\endgroup$ Sep 10, 2019 at 7:35
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidJonsson, the atmosphere is not stationary or in equilibrium. Solar heating of the ground guarantees convection from the ground, which can be verified by looking at time lapse photography of cloud formation. Your starting assumptions would possibly create the conditions that you are referencing in your question, but those starting conditions do not exist. $\endgroup$ Sep 10, 2019 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ What references or reasoning do you have to oppose the information form Smithsonian Institution regarding no condensation at the surface? $\endgroup$ Sep 20, 2019 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidJonsson, give me a link to the Smithsonian info so I can read it. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2019 at 0:58
  • $\begingroup$ It has been there in the last sentence of the question since September 11. $\endgroup$ Sep 21, 2019 at 11:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.