Life on Earth would be impossible without the atmosphere. It contains oxygen and other gases essential for plants and animals. The atmosphere protects us from the Sun’s harmful rays and acts like a blanket to keep our planet at a livable temperature. There is, however, some disturbing evidence that the heat-trapping property of our atmosphere is changing.
Changing Climate is about scientific research that is going on today. Research on our planet’s climate is of such importance that whenever a new discovery is made, or a new theory is proposed, a story about it is carried in major newspapers. Among the most frequent topics appearing in the press during the past decade are global warming and the greenhouse effect.
Global warming refers to the fact that over the past century the average temperature of Earth has been gradually increasing. Nobody knows for certain if this trend will continue, and if it does, how much the temperature will rise. This is cause for concern because a further increase in Earth’s temperature may disrupt global systems worldwide, with effects ranging from more intense storms and floods in some regions to droughts and heat waves in others.
Major changes are not expected to occur tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or possibly even within our lifetime. The issue is rather how our actions today will affect the world of our children and grandchildren.
The greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon that makes our blue-green planet hospitable for life. The effect is caused by certain invisible gases—called greenhouse gases—in the atmosphere. Without those gases, which keep Earth warm, our planet would be a frigid ball of ice.
The reason many scientists believe the average temperature of Earth will continue to warm is because the concentration of greenhouse gases is increasing as a result of human activities. So, to understand the reasons why the globe may be warming up, and to predict what may happen in the future, we first have to understand the greenhouse effect.
Most of Earth’s atmosphere consists of nitrogen and oxygen. These gases allow sunlight to pass through them. They do not absorb heat from the Sun. However, the atmosphere also contains other gases that absorb heat. Sunlight warms them. Among these gases are carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane, all of which existed in the atmosphere long before there were human beings, and are responsible for giving Earth a warm, comfortable climate. How do they do this? A simple greenhouse provides a clear analogy.
The interior of the greenhouse gets warmer and warmer, until finally the amount of heat that escapes to the outside air equals the amount of heat flowing into the greenhouse from the Sun and the warm glass window.
You may be familiar with this effect when you enter a car that has been in the sunlight for a few hours with the windows closed. The glass windshield traps heat, so the air inside the car is warmer than the air outside the car.
There are two ways in which this effect in the greenhouse and car is different from what occurs in Earth’s atmosphere. First, imagine you open the door to the greenhouse (or car). Warm air rushes out and is replaced by cooler air. This exchange of air is what cools the greenhouse. Can you imagine cooling Earth this way?
Second, in a greenhouse, the special heat-trapping material—the glass—is a solid surrounding the greenhouse. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane are spread thinly throughout the atmosphere.
In other words, Earth heats up like a greenhouse, but it is not actually a greenhouse. Because the carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane act like the glass in a greenhouse, they are called greenhouse gases.
The diagrams on this page illustrate the greenhouse effect in Earth’s atmosphere. Compare it with the illustrations on the previous page to see how Earth’s atmosphere system differs from an actual greenhouse.
In a sense, the greenhouse gases act like a blanket, trapping heat energy near Earth’s surface. These gases keep Earth’s surface about 33°C (60°F) warmer than it would otherwise be.
If there were no greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, our entire planet would be so much colder than it is today—the oceans and all water would be completely frozen.
Liquid water was very important in the origin of life on Earth. If there were no greenhouse effect, it is likely that life—including us, of course—would not exist.Question 1.2. What is the difference between "global warming" and "the greenhouse effect?"
More than 100 years ago, Jean Fourier realized the atmosphere possessed heat-trapping properties. He coined the term greenhouse effect to refer to the idea that the atmosphere acted somewhat like the glass walls of a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to enter but preventing some of the heat energy escaping into space. This effect is due to the water vapor, methane, and carbon dioxide that exist naturally in the atmosphere.
For billions of years varying levels of carbon dioxide have been maintained in the atmosphere.
In 1896, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius, who was familiar with Fourier’s ideas, published an article with dire predictions. Arrhenius knew the capacity of the atmosphere to trap heat was due to the greenhouse gases that existed naturally in the atmosphere. He was also aware the concentration of one of those gases, carbon dioxide (the same invisible gas that makes bubbles in soft drinks), was increasing. He decided this increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was a result of the way merchandise was being produced—the industrial revolution was under way—irreversibly affecting society and the environment.
The industrial revolution is the name given to the changes in the production of goods and means of transportation that began when the steam engine substituted steam power for muscle power. In 1769 the first practical steam engine was patented by the Scottish instrument maker James Watt. Although no one knew it at the time, this invention started the industrial revolution.
Prior to the industrial revolution animals and men were the basic sources of energy. Inventions like the steam engine made large factories possible and changed the landscape of our country from farms and small towns to huge cities with industrial areas connected by rails and highways. By the time of Arrhenius, vast quantities of coal were routinely burned to provide energy to run factories. As a result, air pollution was becoming a problem throughout Europe.
Arrhenius realized that when coal burned it released not only thick black smoke; it also released the invisible gas, carbon dioxide. He also realized that vast quantities of carbon stored in the coal for millions of years was now being released into the atmosphere as CO2.
Based on his knowledge of the properties of carbon dioxide, and Fourier’s ideas about the greenhouse effect, Arrhenius predicted the concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere would eventually double, and when it did, the result would be an increase in average global temperatures of up to 5°C (9°F).
While the addition of just a few degrees may not seem like much compared with the natural greenhouse effect of 33°C (60°F), the effect of such a change on human society can make a huge difference.
A 2012 study done by University of California Education Dept. and
Psychology Dept. members, Michael Ranney, Dav Clark, Daniel Reinholz,
and Sarah Cohen, shows that reading a brief, 400-word text yields both
large knowledge gains about the mechanism of global warming and more
climate change acceptance. The study involved asking people to answer
the question, "How would you explain global warming’s mechanism?"
The two columns below contain the 400-word answer:
Here is an excerpt from the paper that gives and indication of a result from the 2012 study:
"...Across all pre-tests, not a student mentioned different light/radiation types or atmospheric retention time, despite an explicit prompt to explain any differences between the energy moving toward and away from Earth. After reading the 400-word description, though, 61% of Berkeley students (and 55% of Brownsville students) across both conditions correctly answered that Earth emitted infrared light. We also found dramatic increases in true (scored) GW [global warming] knowledge...."Here is an under-3 min video explanation of global warming from http://www.howglobalwarmingworks.org:
That site also has versions "under 5 min," "under 4 min," "in 1.2 min" and "in 52 sec."
Draft Light in the Atmosphere (game that models greenhouse effect)
Yale Climate Connections is a daily public radio series produced by the Yale Center for Environmental Communication (YCEC). The series aims to help radio listeners understand how climate change is impacting our lives and what diverse people and organizations are doing to reduce the associated risks.