and animals in general, are usually in a thermal steady state
with respect to their surroundings. In particular, endotherms
seek to control their body temperatures. Heat generated by
metabolic processes is lost to the environment though several
mechanisms: radiation, conduction, convection, and evaporation.
Unless the organism has more heat than can be eliminated by
radiation and convection, evaporation (through perspiration) is
not required and conduction is negligible (cf.
section 2). This is
most relevant when ambient temperatures are low (e.g., winter).
While radiation is easily estimated, convection requires more
effort and some assumptions.
2. Free convection
Convection relies on the flow of a fluid to transport heat from
the object being cooled to the surrounding environment. In free
convection, this fluid motion is the result of the buoyancy of
warmer fluid in the cooler surrounding fluid. If there is an
externally imposed flow, such as a wind, the convective rate is
enhanced. At the very least, heat will be removed at the rate
due to free convection. The Nusselt number is the ratio of the
hard-to-compute convective transfer rate to the
easy-to-determine conductive rate:1
thermal flux (W/m2
is the characteristic length of the body, k
is the thermal
conductivity of the fluid, and ΔT
is the temperature difference between the
body and the surrounding fluid. The Nusselt number can be found
by computing the Grashof number and the Prandtl number. Those
fluid dynamicists love all their special numbers, don't they?
The Grashof number is given by2
where α is the thermal expansion coefficient and the other
symbols have their usual meanings, defined in the reference. The
Prandtl number is simply the ratio of the kinematic viscosity to
the thermal diffusivity. For air, Pr
is approximately 0.7, depending slightly on
The product, Gr*Pr
is the Rayleigh number, Ra
, which can be used to
find the Nusselt number. The relationship between Nu
is empirical. For this,
we must turn to a heat transfer text.4
As we will
is about 1010
which puts us at the top of the transition region and into the
turbulent region, where
This applies to vertical plates or cylinders alike, either of
which is a reasonable approximation to the human body.
Finally, it is time to plug in some numbers. Human skin
is about 34°C. However, if the person is
clothed, the effective surface temperature will be lower, say
30°C. For 20°C ambient temperature, ΔT
For an adult, L=2 m. Then Ra
resulting in Nu
about 200. This large value justifies neglecting conduction
is the ratio
of convective to conductive thermal transfer rates. Since k
=0.026 W/m/K for air,3
the convective thermal flux rate is
For comparison, the radiation rate is determined by the
the ambient absolute temperature, ε is the emissivity, and σ is
the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. For skin or clothing, emissivity
is near unity. This approximation is valid when ΔT
is small compared to the
ambient temperature, T0
4. Comparison of
convective and radiative rates
The ratio of convective to radiative transfer is only weakly
dependent on temperature difference:
Hence, the assumed value for ΔT
of 10°C is not critical to the comparison of the relative
importance of convection and radiation. The convective heat loss
rate is about half the radiative rate. Forced convection will
increase this ratio (cf.
5. Other work
This topic has been discussed by others. For example, Flores6
estimates the free convection coefficient of 2.3, compared to
2.6 in Eq. (4) above. Assuming a wind of 1 mph (~0.5 m/s),
Flores estimates a 40% enhancement of the convective rate.
modeled a clothed human. His model predicts that
the ratio of convective to radiative heat loss is 0.7 at an
ambient temperature of 20°C, somewhat higher than predicted by
Eq. (6). This result was independent of the air gap between skin
and fabric. The model was validated by an experimental
simulation of a clothed human body by a hot plate covered with
fabric. Lee's model did assume a slight wind, 0.2 m/s, though
the experimental setup did not.
Hardy and DuBois8
reported basal metabolic rates of
two subjects (themselves), finding a rate of about 35 kcal/m2
. This is not consistent with the values
computed using Eqs. (4) and (5) for ΔT
This can be explained by the fact that the (nude) subjects were
not in a steady state; they were losing energy more rapidly
their metabolism was able to replace it. As the authors note,
"...both subjects were on the point of shivering at the end of
the basal periods in many experiments in which the temperature
was lower than 27°C." They subsequently began to shiver.
Curiously, these authors reported very low convection rates (10
- 20% of the total), with the highest rates at the smallest
temperature differences. This contradicts the prediction of Eq.
(6). They did not explain how convective rates were measured.
DeDear, et al.
measured radiative and convective thermal loss rates rates using
manikins. They found the convective rate to be 3.3 W/m2
higher than Eq. (4) predicts. This is not surprising given the
uncertainties in the calculation. They also measured 4.5 W/m2
the radiative rate, rather lower than predicted by Eq. (5). This
discrepancy is likely caused by a lower emissivity than assumed
in Sec. 3. The value obtained by deDear, et al.
is consistent with
emissivity 0.8. In the presence of 1m/s wind these authors found
an additional 10 W/m2
/K of forced convective loss.
Even in the absence of wind, convection is an important
mechanism in cooling the human body. Under such conditions,
convection accounts for about 1/3 the thermal loss of the human
body in cool, still air. As other thermal loss mechanisms grow
in importance, such as forced convection and perspiration,
radiation assumes a minor role in human thermal balance. This is
consonant with the concept of "wind-chill" factor, which
accounts for the enhanced sensation of cold when it is windy.
These conclusions are only weakly dependent on the assumed
temperature of clothing or skin, which is only estimated rather
I am grateful for the assistance of Edward Ruf, who provided a
crucial reference and insight into the physics of convection. I
am also indebted to Fred Kinley who also provided useful
1. Eric Weisstein, World
2. Eric Weisstein, World of
3. The Engineering Toolbox
4. Frank Kreith and William Z. Black, Basic Heat Transfer
(Harper & Row,
Publishers, Inc. NewYork, NY 1980).
Temperature Regulation in the
Cooling of the Human Body
6. Juan G. Flores in Biomedical Engineering
D.O. Cooney, ed., (Marcel Dekker,
New York, NY, 1976). https://www.scribd.com/document/44607050/Heat-Transefer-Coefficient-of-Human
7. Bin Lee, Theoretical
Prediction and Measurement of the Fabric Surface Apparent
Temperature in a Simulated Man/Fabric/Environment System
(DSTO Aeronautical and Maritime Research Laboratory, 1999)
8. J.D. Hardy and E.F. DuBois, Proc. Nat Acad. Sci., 23
, 624 (1937).
9. de Dear, R. J.; Arens, Edward; Hui, Zhang; Oguro, Masayuki,
International Journal of Biometeorology, 40
, 141 (1997).