The Hadley system provides an example of a thermally direct circulation; the Ferrel system in contrast provides an example of a thermally indirect circulation. In this study, the authors develop an approach to investigate the key thermodynamic properties of the Hadley and Ferrel systems, quantifying them using assimilated meteorological data covering the period January 1979–December 2010. This analysis offers a fresh perspective on the conversion of energy in the atmosphere from diabatic heating to the production of atmospheric kinetic energy. The results indicate that the thermodynamic efficiency of the Hadley system, considered as a heat engine, has been relatively constant over the 32-yr period covered by the analysis, averaging 2.6%. Over the same interval, the power generated by the Hadley regime has risen at an average rate of about 0.54 TW yr−1; this reflects an increase in energy input to the system consistent with the observed trend in the tropical sea surface temperatures. The Ferrel system acts as a heat pump with a coefficient of performance of 12.1, consuming kinetic energy at an approximate rate of 275 TW and exceeding the power production rate of the Hadley system by 77 TW.