The Transfer of Heat Energy

The heat source for our planet is the sun. Energy from the sun is transferred through space and through the earth's atmosphere to the earth's surface. Since this energy warms the earth's surface and atmosphere, some of it is or becomes heat energy. There are three ways heat is transferred into and through the atmosphere:

  • radiation
  • conduction
  • convection


Heat radiating from a fireplace

If you have stood in front of a fireplace or near a campfire, you have felt the heat transfer known as radiation. The side of your body nearest the fire warms, while your other side remains unaffected by the heat. Although you are surrounded by air, the air has nothing to do with this transfer of heat. Heat lamps, that keep food warm, work in the same way. Radiation is the transfer of heat energy through space by electromagnetic radiation.

Most of the electromagnetic radiation that comes to the earth from the sun is invisible. Only a small portion comes as visible light. Light is made of waves of different frequencies. The frequency is the number of instances that a repeated event occurs, over a set time. In electromagnetic radiation, its frequency is the number of electromagnetic waves moving past a point each second.

Our brains interpret these different frequencies into colors, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. When the eye views all these different colors at the same time, it is interpreted as white. Waves from the sun which we cannot see are infrared, which have lower frequencies than red, and ultraviolet, which have higher frequencies than violet light. [more on electromagnetic radiation] It is infrared radiation that produce the warm feeling on our bodies.

Most of the solar radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere and much of what reaches the earth's surface is radiated back into the atmosphere to become heat energy. Dark colored objects, such as asphalt, absorb radiant energy faster that light colored objects. However, they also radiate their energy faster than lighter colored objects.

Learning Lesson: Melts in your bag, not in your hand


Conduction is the transfer of heat energy from one substance to another or within a substance. Have you ever left a metal spoon in a pot of soup being heated on a stove? After a short time the handle of the spoon will become hot.

Welding iron is transfering heat by conduction

This is due to transfer of heat energy from molecule to molecule or from atom to atom. Also, when objects are welded together, the metal becomes hot (the orange-red glow) by the transfer of heat from an arc.

This is called conduction and is a very effective method of heat transfer in metals. However, air conducts heat poorly.


Convection is the transfer of heat energy in a fluid. This type of heating is most commonly seen in the kitchen when you see liquid boiling.

Air in the atmosphere acts as a fluid. The sun's radiation strikes the ground, thus warming the rocks. As the rock's temperature rises due to conduction, heat energy is released into the atmosphere, forming a bubble of air which is warmer than the surrounding air. This bubble of air rises into the atmosphere. As it rises, the bubble cools with the heat contained in the bubble moving into the atmosphere.

As the hot air mass rises, the air is replaced by the surrounding cooler, more dense air, what we feel as wind. These movements of air masses can be small in a certain region, such as local cumulus clouds, or large cycles in the troposphere, covering large sections of the earth. Convection currents are responsible for many weather patterns in the troposphere.

Fast Facts

It is not the heat you feel but ultraviolet radiation from the sun that causes sunburns that lead to skin cancer. The warmth of the sun does not lead to a sunburn.

From the American Academy of Dermatology, sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays that reach the earth - ultraviolet A (UVA) rays and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Overexposure to either can lead to skin cancer. In addition to causing skin cancer, here's what each of these rays do:

  • UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots, and can pass through window glass.
  • UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass.

There is no safe way to tan. This includes radiation from artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps. Every time you tan, you damage your skin. As this damage builds, you speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for all types of skin cancer.

Even on cloudy days, ultraviolet radiation can pass through clouds and cause a sunburn if you remain outdoors long enough.