Greenhouse Effect

What greenhouse effect is ?

September 23, 2022

How Does The Greenhouse Effect Work?

As you might expect from the name, what greenhouse effect is … like a greenhouse! A greenhouse is a building with glass walls and a glass roof. Greenhouses are used to grow plants, such as tomatoes and tropical flowers.

A greenhouse stays warm inside, even during the winter. In the daytime, sunlight shines into the greenhouse and warms the plants and air inside. At nighttime, it’s colder outside, but the greenhouse stays pretty warm inside. That’s because the glass walls of the greenhouse trap the Sun’s heat.

A greenhouse captures heat from the Sun during the day. Its glass walls trap the Sun’s heat, which keeps plants inside the greenhouse warm — even on cold nights. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The greenhouse effect works much the same way on Earth. Gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat similar to the glass roof of a greenhouse. These heat-trapping gases are called greenhouse gases.

During the day, the Sun shines through the atmosphere. Earth’s surface warms up in the sunlight. At night, Earth’s surface cools, releasing heat back into the air. But some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That’s what keeps our Earth a warm and cozy 58 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius), on average.

How are humans impacting the greenhouse effect?

Human activities are changing Earth’s natural greenhouse effect. Burning fossil fuels like coal and oil puts more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

NASA has observed increases in the amount of carbon dioxide and some other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Too much of these greenhouse gases can cause Earth’s atmosphere to trap more and more heat. This causes Earth to warm up.

What reduces the greenhouse effect on Earth?

Just like a glass greenhouse, Earth’s greenhouse is also full of plants! Plants can help to balance the greenhouse effect on Earth. All plants — from giant trees to tiny phytoplankton in the ocean — take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen.

The ocean also absorbs a lot of excess carbon dioxide in the air. Unfortunately, the increased carbon dioxide in the ocean changes the water, making it more acidic. This is called ocean acidification.

More acidic water can be harmful to many ocean creatures, such as certain shellfish and coral. Warming oceans — from too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — can also be harmful to these organisms. Warmer waters are a main cause of coral bleaching.

The greenhouse effect is the way in which heat is trapped close to Earth’s surface by “greenhouse gases.” These heat-trapping gases can be thought of as a blanket wrapped around Earth, keeping the planet toastier than it would be without them. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxides, and water vapor. (Water vapor, which responds physically or chemically to changes in temperature, is called a “feedback.”) Scientists have determined that carbon dioxide’s warming effect helps stabilize Earth’s atmosphere. Remove carbon dioxide, and the terrestrial greenhouse effect would collapse. Without carbon dioxide, Earth’s surface would be some 33°C (59°F) cooler.

Greenhouse gases occur naturally and are part of our atmosphere’s makeup. For that reason, Earth is sometimes called the “Goldilocks” planet – its conditions are not too hot and not too cold, but just right to allow life (including us) to flourish. Part of what makes Earth so amenable is its natural greenhouse effect, which keeps the planet at a friendly 15 °C (59 °F) on average. But in the last century or so, humans have been interfering with the planet’s energy balance, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels that add carbon dioxide to the air. The level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere has been rising consistently for decades and traps extra heat near Earth’s surface, causing temperatures to rise.

Which gases cause the greenhouse effect?

The contribution that a greenhouse gas makes to the greenhouse effect depends on how much heat it absorbs, how much it re-radiates and how much of it is in the atmosphere.

In descending order, the gases that contribute most to the Earth’s greenhouse effect are:

water vapour (H2O)

carbon dioxide (CO2)

nitrous oxide(N2O)

methane (CH4)

ozone (O3)

In terms of the amount of heat these gases can absorb and re-radiate (known as their global warming potential or GWP), CH4 is 23 times more effective and N2O is 296 times more effective than CO2. However, there is much more CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere than there is CH4 or N2O.

Not all the greenhouse gas that we emit to the atmosphere remains there indefinitely. For example, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the amount of CO2 dissolved in surface waters of the oceans stay in equilibrium, because the air and water mix well at the sea surface. When we add more CO2 to the atmosphere, a proportion of it dissolves into the oceans.

Anthropogenic Greenhouse Gases

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, human activities have greatly increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Consequently, measured atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are many times higher than pre-industrial levels.

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