News Article On The Earth’s Heat From Radioactive Decay

An intrguiging news article has appeared by Charles Q. Choi titled

Radioactive decay fuels Earth’s inner fires

The article includes the text

“Extraordinary amount of heat remains from primordial days, scientists say

The researchers found the decay of radioactive isotopes uranium-238 and thorium-232 together contributed 20 trillion watts to the amount of heat Earth radiates into space, about six times as much power as the United States consumes. U.S. power consumption in 2005 averaged about 3.34 trillion watts.

As huge as this value is, it only represents about half of the total heat leaving the planet. The researchers suggest the remainder of the heat comes from the cooling of the Earth since its birth.”

To concert the estimate in the MSNBC news article to watts per meter squared, 20 trillion watts must be divided by the area of the Earth [5.1 x 10^14 meter squared] which yields a heat source of 0.039 watts per meter squared. 

This is well less than the  significant radiative forcings as estimated in figure SPM.2 in the 2007 IPCC WG1 report and, except for local effects where lava flows and volcanic eruptions are occuring , this heat is of minor climatic importance [the outgassing of sulphur dioxide and other chemicals and of ash, of course, are a different issue].  The heating of the interior and resulting effect on currents in the Earth’s mantle, however, are important in climate on very long time scales as this helps drive plate tectonics, such as continental drift.

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