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The Greenhouse Effect

The Greenhouse Effect




The greenhouse effect is a natural occurrence that maintains Earth's average temperature at approximately 60 degrees Fahrenheit.


 The greenhouse effect is a necessary phenomenon that keeps all Earth's heat from escaping to the outer atmosphere. Without the natural greenhouse effect it is certain that life on Earth would be difficult to sustain. 



Temperatures on Earth would be much lower than they are now, and the existence of life on this planet would not be possible. The global average temperature would drop precipitously 33 degrees from its current 15° to -18°C. The Earth would become an ice planet.



 However, too many greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere could increase the greenhouse effect.

global warming melting earth

 This could result in an increase in mean global temperatures as well as changes in precipitation patterns. 


greenhouse effect


The Earth's atmosphere, a thin blanket of gases, protects the planet from the harshest of the sun's ultraviolet radiation. The atmosphere, by trapping the Earth's warmth, keeps rivers and oceans from freezing. Carbon dioxide and water vapor are the most important gases in creating the insulating or "greenhouse effect" of the atmosphere. 


Some heating occurs from contact with Earth’s surface, which absorbs most of the sun’s energy and emits long-wave radiation back into the atmosphere.


greenhouse effect greenhouse effect

Under normal conditions some of the sun's heat is radiated back into space

The 'Greenhouse Effect' occurs when heat is trapped in the atmosphere by gases 



The Sun powers Earth’s climate, radiating energy at very short wavelengths, predominately in the visible or near-visible (e.g., ultraviolet) part of the spectrum. 


Here are the different types of radiation in the EM spectrum, in order from lowest energy to highest:



Radio: Yes, this is the same kind of energy that radio stations emit into the air for your boom box to capture and turn into your favorite Mozart, Madonna, or Justin Timberlake tunes. But radio waves are also emitted by other things ... such as stars and gases in space. You may not be able to dance to what these objects emit, but you can use it to learn what they are made of.




Microwaves: They will cook your popcorn in just a few minutes! Microwaves in space are used by astronomers to learn about the structure of nearby galaxies, and our own Milky Way!


Infrared to UV


Infrared: Our skin emits infrared light, which is why we can be seen in the dark by someone using night vision goggles. In space, IR light maps the dust between stars. Visible: Yes, this is the part that our eyes see. Visible radiation is emitted by everything from fireflies to light bulbs to stars ... also by fast-moving particles hitting other particles. Ultraviolet: We know that the Sun is a source of ultraviolet (or UV) radiation, because it is the UV rays that cause our skin to burn! Stars and other "hot" objects in space emit UV radiation.


X-rays: Your doctor uses them to look at your bones and your dentist to look at your teeth. Hot gases in the Universe also emit X-rays .




Gamma-rays: Radioactive materials (some natural and others made by man in things like nuclear power plants) can emit gamma-rays. Big particle accelerators that scientists use to help them understand what matter is made of can sometimes generate gamma-rays. But the biggest gamma-ray generator of all is the Universe! It makes gamma radiation in all kinds of ways.

NASA Graphic



Roughly one-third of the solar energy that reaches the top of Earth’s atmosphere is reflected directly back to space. The remaining two-thirds is absorbed by the surface and, to a lesser extent, by the atmosphere. To balance the absorbed incoming energy, the Earth must, on average, radiate the same amount of energy back to space. Because the Earth is much colder than the Sun, it radiates at much longer wavelengths, primarily in the infrared part of the spectrum . Much of this thermal radiation emitted by the land and ocean is absorbed by the atmosphere, including clouds, and reradiated back to Earth. This is called the greenhouse effect. The glass walls in a greenhouse reduce airflow and increase the temperature of the air inside. Analogously, but through a different physical process, the Earth’s greenhouse effect warms the surface of the planet. Without the natural greenhouse effect, the average temperature at Earth’s surface would be below the freezing point of water. Thus, Earth’s natural greenhouse effect makes life as we know it possible. However, human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have greatly intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming. 



The two most abundant gases in the atmosphere, nitrogen (comprising 78% of the dry atmosphere) and oxygen (comprising 21%), exert almost no greenhouse effect. Instead, the greenhouse effect comes from molecules that are more complex and much less common. Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas, and carbon dioxide (CO2) is the second-most important one. Methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and several other gases present in the atmosphere in small amounts also contribute to the greenhouse effect. In the humid equatorial regions, where there is so much water vapor in the air that the greenhouse effect is very large, adding a small additional amount of CO2 or water vapor has only a small direct impact on downward infrared radiation. However, in the cold, dry polar regions, the effect of a small increase in CO2 or water vapor is much greater. The same is true for the cold, dry upper atmosphere where a small increase in water vapor has a greater influence on the greenhouse effect than the same change in water vapor would have near the surface. 


EPA Diagram



Several components of the climate system, notably the oceans and living things, affect atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. A prime example of this is plants taking CO2 out of the atmosphere and converting it (and water) into carbohydrates via photosynthesis. In the industrial era, human activities have added greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests. 


Adding more of a greenhouse gas, such as CO2, to the atmosphere intensifies the greenhouse effect, thus warming Earth’s climate. The amount of warming depends on various feedback mechanisms. For example, as the atmosphere warms due to rising levels of greenhouse gases, its concentration of water vapor increases, further intensifying the greenhouse effect. This in turn causes more warming, which causes an additional increase in water vapor, in a self-reinforcing cycle. This water vapor feedback may be strong enough to approximately double the increase in the greenhouse effect due to the added CO2 alone. 


Additional important feedback mechanisms involve clouds. Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. A change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, cloud altitude, particle size and shape, or lifetimes, affects the degree to which clouds warm or cool the Earth. Some changes amplify warming while others diminish it. Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming, and how these changes affect climate through various feedback mechanisms.

Credit: GRACE Goddard Space Flight Center NASA, UNEP, EPA, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NOAA, University of Colorado, CIA, U.S. Department of Energy,The Smithsonian,IPCC, 2007: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis