Convection - How it works

Introduction to Convection

Some concepts and phenomena cross disciplinary boundaries within the earth sciences, an example being the physical process of convection. It is of equal relevance to scientists working in the geologic, atmospheric, and hydrologic sciences, or the realms of study concerned with the geosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere, respectively. The only major component of the earth system not directly affected by convection is the biosphere, but given the high degree of interconnection between different subsystems, convection indirectly affects the biosphere in the air, waters, and solid earth.

Convection can be defined as vertical circulation that results from differences in density ultimately brought about by differences in temperature, and it involves the transfer of heat through the motion of hot fluid from one place to another. In the physical sciences, the term fluid refers to any substance that flows and therefore has no definite shape. This usually means liquids and gases, but in the earth sciences it can refer even to slow-flowing solids. Over the great expanses of time studied by earth scientists, the net flow of solids in certain circumstances (for example, ice in glaciers) can be substantial.

Convection and Heat

As indicated in the preceding paragraph, convection is related closely to heat and temperature and indirectly related to another phenomenon, thermal energy. What people normally call heat is actually thermal energy, or kinetic energy (the energy associated with movement) produced by molecules in motion relative to one another.

Heat, in its scientific meaning, is internal thermal energy that flows from one body of matter to another or from a system at a higher temperature to a system at a lower temperature. Temperature thus can be defined as a measure of the average molecular kinetic energy of a system. Temperature also governs the direction of internal energy flow between two systems. Two systems at the same temperature are said to be in a state of thermal equilibrium; when this occurs, there is no exchange of heat, and therefore heat exists only in transfer between two systems.

There is no such thing as cold, only the absence of heat. If heat exists only in transit between systems, it follows that the direction of heat flow must always be from a system at a higher temperature to a system at a lower temperature. (This fact is embodied in the second law of thermodynamics, which is discussed, along with other topics mentioned here, in Energy and Earth.) Heat transfer occurs through three means: conduction, convection, and radiation.


Conduction involves successive molecular collisions and the transfer of heat between two bodies in contact. It usually occurs in a solid. Convection requires the motion of fluid from one place to another, and, as we have noted, it can take place in a liquid, a gas, or a near solid that behaves like a slow-flowing fluid. Finally, radiation involves electromagnetic waves and requires no physical medium, such as water or air, for the transfer.

If you put one end of a metal rod in a fire and then touch the "cool" end a few minutes later, you will find that it is no longer cool. This is an example of heating by conduction, whereby kinetic energy is passed from molecule to molecule in the same way as a secret is passed from one person to another along a line of people standing shoulder to shoulder. Just as the original phrasing of the secret becomes garbled, some kinetic energy is inevitably lost in the series of transfers, which is why the end of the rod outside the fire is still much cooler than the one sitting in the flames.

As for radiation, it is distinguished from conduction and convection by virtue of the fact that it requires no medium for its transfer. This explains why space is cold yet the Sun's rays warm Earth: the rays are a form of electromagnetic energy, and they travel by means of radiation through space. Space, of course, is the virtual absence of a medium, but upon entering Earth's atmosphere, the heat from the electromagnetic rays is transferred to various media in the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere. That heat then is transferred by means of convection and conduction.


Like conduction and unlike radiation, convection requires a medium. However, in conduction the heat is transferred from one molecule to another, whereas in convection the heated fluid itself is actually moving. As it does, it removes or displaces cold air in its path. The flow of heated fluid in this situation is called a convection current.

Convection is of two types: natural and forced. Heated air rising is an example of natural convection. Hot air has a lower density than that of the cooler air in the atmosphere above it and therefore is buoyant; as it rises, however, it loses energy and cools. This cooled air, now denser than the air around it, sinks again, creating a repeating cycle that generates wind.

Forced convection occurs when a pump or other mechanism moves the heated fluid. Examples of forced-convection apparatuses include some types of ovens and even refrigerators or air conditioners. As noted earlier, it is possible to transfer heat only from a high-temperature reservoir to a low-temperature one, and thus these cooling machines work by removing hot air. The refrigerator pulls heat from its compartment and expels it to the surrounding room, while an air conditioner pulls heat from a room or building and releases it to the outside.

Forced convection does not necessarily involve man-made machines: the human heart is a pump, and blood carries excess heat generated by the body to the skin. The heat passes through the skin by means of conduction, and at the surface of the skin it is removed from the body in a number of ways, primarily by the cooling evaporation of perspiration.

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