Principles of Environmental Physics by John Monteith and Mike Unsworth by John Monteith and Mike Unsworth - Read Online

Book Preview

Principles of Environmental Physics - John Monteith

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1


The Scope of Environmental Physics

Physics has always been concerned with understanding the natural environment, and, in its early days, was often referred to as Natural Philosophy. Environmental Physics, as we choose to define it, is the measurement and analysis of interactions between organisms and their environments.

To grow and reproduce successfully, organisms must come to terms with the state of their environment. Some microorganisms can grow at temperatures between −6 and 120 °C and, when they are desiccated, can survive even down to −272 °C. Higher forms of life on the other hand have adapted to a relatively narrow range of environments by evolving sensitive physiological responses to external physical stimuli. When environments change, for example because of natural variation or because of human activity, organisms may, or may not, have sufficiently flexible responses to survive.

The physical environment of plants and animals has five main components which determine the survival of the species:

mpslid S1?

(i) the environment is a source of radiant energy which is trapped by the process of photosynthesis in green cells and stored in the form of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. These materials are the primary source of metabolic energy for all forms of life on land and in the oceans;

mpslid E1?mpslid S2?

(ii) the environment is a source of the water, carbon, nitrogen, other minerals, and trace elements needed to form the components of living cells;

mpslid E2?mpslid S3?

(iii) factors such as temperature and daylength determine the rates at which plants grow and develop, the demand of animals for food, and the onset of reproductive cycles in both plants and animals;

mpslid E3?mpslid S4?

(iv) the environment provides stimuli, notably in the form of light or gravity, which are perceived by plants and animals and provide frames of reference both in time and in space. These stimuli are essential for resetting biological clocks, providing a sense of balance, etc.

mpslid E4?mpslid S5?

(v) the environment determines the distribution and viability of pathogens and parasites which attack living organisms, and the susceptibility of organisms to attack.

mpslid E5?

To understand and explore relationships between organisms and their environment, the biologist should be familiar with the main concepts of the environmental sciences. He or she must search for links between physiology, biochemistry, and molecular biology on the one hand and atmospheric science, soil science, and hydrology on the other. One of these links is environmental physics. The presence of an organism modifies the environment to which it is exposed, so that the physical stimulus received from the environment is partly determined by the physiological response to the environment.

When an organism interacts with its environment, the physical processes involved are rarely simple and the physiological mechanisms are often imperfectly understood. Fortunately, physicists are trained to use Occam’s Razor when they interpret natural phenomena in terms of cause and effect: i.e. they observe the behavior of a system and then seek the simplest way of describing it in terms of governing variables. Boyle’s Law and Newton’s Laws of Motion are classic examples of this attitude. More complex relations are avoided until the weight of experimental evidence shows they are essential. Many of the equations discussed in this book are approximations to reality which have been found useful to establish and explore ideas. The art of environmental physics lies in choosing robust approximations which maintain the principles of conservation for mass, momentum, and energy.

Such approximations are often described as models. These models may be either theoretical or experimental, and both types are found in this book. We have not considered models of plant or animal systems based on computer simulations. They can rarely be tested in the sense that physicists use the word because so many variables and assumptions are deployed in their derivation. Consequently, although they can be useful for identifying the sensitivity of systems to environmental variables, they seldom seem to us to contribute to an understanding of the principles of environmental physics.

Several volumes would be needed to cover all relevant principles of environmental physics, and the definite article was deliberately omitted from the title of this book because it makes no claim to be comprehensive. However, the topics which it covers are central to the subject: the exchange of radiation, heat, mass, and momentum between organisms and their environment. Within these topics, similar analysis can be applied to a number of closely related problems in plant, animal, and human ecology. The short bibliography at the end of the book should be consulted for more specialized treatments, for example of subjects such as the physics of water, heat, and solute transfer in soils.

The lack of a common language is often a barrier to progress in interdisciplinary subjects and it is not easy for a physicist or atmospheric scientist with no biological training to communicate with a physiologist or ecologist who is fearful of formulae. Throughout the book therefore, simple electrical analogs are used to describe rates of transfer and exchange between organisms and their environment, and calculus has been kept to a minimum. The concept of resistance (and its reciprocal, conductance) has been familiar to plant physiologists for many years, mainly as a way of expressing the physical factors that control rates of transpiration and photosynthesis, and animal physiologists have used the term to describe the insulation provided by clothing, coats, or by a layer of air. In micrometeorology, aerodynamic resistances derived from turbulent transfer coefficients can be used to calculate fluxes from a knowledge of the appropriate gradients, and resistances which govern the loss of water from vegetation are now incorporated in models of the atmosphere that include the behavior of the earth’s surface. Ohm’s Law has therefore become an important unifying principle of environmental physics; the basis of a common language for biologists and physicists.


Conversions from SI to c.g.s. are given in the Appendix, Table A.1.

Chapter 2

Properties of Gases and Liquids

The physical properties of gases influence many of the exchanges that take place between organisms and their environment. The relevant equations for air therefore form an appropriate starting point for an environmental physics text. They also provide a basis for discussing the behavior of water vapor, a gas whose significance in meteorology, hydrology, and ecology is out of all proportion to its relatively small concentration in the atmosphere. Because the evaporation of water from soils, plants, and animals is also an important process in environmental physics, this chapter reviews the principles by which the state of liquid water can be described in organisms and soil, and by which exchange occurs between liquid and vapor phases of water.

2.1 Gases and Water Vapor

2.1.1 Pressure, Volume, and Temperature

The observable properties of a gas such as temperature and pressure can be related to the mass and velocity of its constituent molecules by the Kinetic Theory of Gases which is based on Newton’s Laws of Motion. Newton established the principle that when force is applied to a body, its momentum, the product of mass and velocity, changes at a rate proportional to the magnitude of the force. Appropriately, the unit of force in the Système Internationale is the Newton and the unit of pressure (force per unit area) is the Pascal—from the name of another famous natural philosopher.

which a gas exerts on the surface of a liquid or solid is a measure of the rate at which momentum is transferred to the surface from molecules which strike it and rebound. Assuming that the kinetic energy of all the molecules in an enclosed space is constant and by making further assumptions about the nature of a perfect and


implying that pressure is two-thirds of the kinetic energy per unit volume.

Although Eq. (2.1) is central to the Kinetic Theory of Gases, it has little practical value. A number of congruent but more useful relations can be derived from the observations of Boyle and Charles whose gas laws can be combined to give


, occupied by a mole at standard pressure and temperature (STP, i.e. 101.325 kPa and 273.15 K) which is 0.0224 m³ (22.4 l). Then


 J mol−1 K−1, the molar gas constant, has the dimensions of a molecular specific heat.

is the Avogadro constant. It follows that the mean energy per molecule is proportional to


is the Boltzmann constant.

Equation (2.3), which is a statement of the Ideal Gas Law, is sometimes used in the form


obtained by writing the density of a gas as its molecular mass divided by its molecular volume, i.e.


so Eq. (2.5) can also be written in the form


Equation (2.7) provides a general basis for exploring the relation between pressure, volume, and temperature in unit mass of gas and is particularly useful in four cases:

mpslid S1?


mpslid E1?mpslid S2?


mpslid E2?mpslid S3?


mpslid E3?mpslid S4?

may all change.

mpslid E4?

When the molecular weight of a gas is known, its density at STP can be calculated from Eq. (2.6) and its density at any other temperature and pressure from Eq. (2.5). Table 2.1 contains the molecular weights and densities at STP of the main constituents of dry air. Multiplying each density by the appropriate volume fraction gives the mass concentration of each component and the sum of these concentrations is the density of dry air. From a density of 1.292 kg m−3 and from Eq. (2.5) the effective molecular weight of dry air (in g) is 28.96 or 29 within 0.1%.

Table 2.1

Composition of Dry Air

Since air is a mixture of gases, it obeys Dalton’s Law, which states that the total pressure of a mixture of gases that do not react with each other is given by the sum of the partial pressures. Partial pressure is the pressure that a gas would exert at the same temperature as the mixture if it alone occupied the volume that the mixture occupies.

2.1.2 The Hydrostatic Equation

, then



is the acceleration due to gravity. Eq. (2.8), the hydrostatic equation, describes how pressure decreases with increasing height.

2.1.3 The First Law of Thermodynamics, and Specific Heats

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy in a system is conserved if heat is taken into account. When a unit mass of gas is heated but not allowed to expand, the increase in total heat content per unit increase of temperature is known as the specific heat at constant volume. Conversely, if the gas is allowed to expand in such a way that its pressure stays constant, additional energy is needed for expansion, so that the specific heat at constant pressure .

To evaluate the difference . The same relation is valid for any system in which gas expands at a constant