How Cold is the Ground II
Last week (ok, it was a little more than a few days ago…) I used dimensional analysis to figure out how the ground’s temperature changes with time. But although dimensional analysis can give us information about the length scales in the problem, it doesn’t tell us what the solution looks like. From dimensional analysis, we don’t even know what the solution does at large times and distances. (Although we can usually see the asymptotic behavior directly from the equation.) So let’s go ahead and solve the the heat equation exactly:
Well, what type of solution do we want to this equation? We want the
temperature at the Earth’s surface
for some function
Since we have a second-order
ordinary differential equation for
Well, we want the temperature very far away from the surface of the ground to be
constant, so we need the solution that decays with distance,
Well, what does this solution say?
As we expected from our scaling arguments last week, the distance scale
depends on the square root of the time scale — if we decrease our
frequency by 4 (say, looking at changes over a season vs over a month),
the ground gets cooler only
Let’s recap. To model the temperature of the ground, we looked for a
solution to the heat equation which had a sinusoidally oscillating
1) Is the solution that we found unique? Or are there other possible solutions?
2) This is all well and good, but what if our days or seasons aren’t perfect sines? Can we find a solution that describes this behavior?
I’ll give one (1) VirtuosiPoint to the first commenter who can prove to what extent the above solution is unique. But how about the second point? Can we solve this for non-sinusoidal time variations? Well, at this point most of the readers are rolling their eyes and shouting “Use a Fourier series and move on.” So I will. Briefly, it turns out that (more or less) any periodic function can be written as a sum of sines & cosines. So we can just add a bunch of sines and cosines together and construct our final solution. So just for fun, here is a plot of the temperature of the ground in Ithaca (data from Wikipedia) over a year. (I used a discrete Fourier transform to compute the coefficients.)
Looks pretty boring, but I swear that all the frequencies are in that
plot. It just turns out that the seasons in Ithaca are pretty
sinusoidal. So about 20 meters below Ithaca, the temperature is a pretty
constant 8 C. While I was postponing writing this, I wondered what the
temperature on Mercury’s rocks would be. If we dig deep enough, can we
find an area with habitable temperatures? Some
shows that the daytime and nighttime temperatures on Mercury are
1. ^ More precisely, since the heat equation is linear and real, if
2. ^ Hint: It’s not unique. For instance, here is another solution that satisfies the constraints, with no internal heat sources or sinks (I’ll call it the “freshly buried” solution):
Can you prove that all the other solutions decay to the original solution? Or is there a second or even a spectrum of steady state solutions?
 ^ If someone provides me with better data of the time variation of Mercury’s surface at some specific latitude, I’ll update with a full plot of the temperature as a function of depth and time.Tweet