The Earth’s surface, warmed by the Sun, radiates heat into the atmosphere. Some heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and then radiated to space (A). Some heat makes its way to space directly (B). Some heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases and then radiated back towards the Earth’s surface (C). With more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere later this Century, more heat will be stopped by greenhouse gases, warming the planet.
Click on image for full size
Lisa Gardiner / Windows to the Universe
Earth's Greenhouse Effect
Energy from the Sun that makes its way to the Earth’s surface can have trouble finding its way back out to space. This is because of a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s temperature would be below freezing. However, Earth’s greenhouse effect is getting stronger as we add more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. And that is warming the climate of our planet.
Heat is radiated into the atmosphere from the Earth’s surface, which is warmed by sunlight. As the heat makes its way back to space, much of it is absorbed by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are more complex than most other gas molecules in the atmosphere, with a structure that can absorb heat. They radiate the heat back to the Earth's surface, to another greenhouse gas molecule, or out to space.
Sometimes during this Century, the amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is expected to double. Other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide are increasing as well. The quantity of greenhouse gases is increasing as fossil fuels are burned, releasing the gases and other air pollutants into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases also make their way to the atmosphere from other sources. Farm animals, for example, release methane gas as they digest food. As cement is made from limestone, it releases carbon dioxide.
With more greenhouse gases in the air, heat passing through on its way out of the atmosphere is more likely to be stopped. The added greenhouse gases absorb the heat. They then radiate this heat. Some of the heat will head away from the Earth, some of it will be absorbed by another greenhouse gas molecule, and some of it will wind up back at the planet’s surface again. With more greenhouse gases, heat will stick around, warming the planet.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
The Spring 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist
focuses on the ocean, including articles on polar research, coral reefs, ocean acidification, and climate. Includes a gorgeous full color poster!
You might also be interested in:
The climate where you live is called regional climate. It is the average weather in a place over more than thirty years. To describe the regional climate of a place, people often tell what the temperatures...more
Most things around us are made of groups of atoms bonded together into packages called molecules. The atoms in a molecule are held together because they share or exchange electrons. Molecules are made...more
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a kind of gas. There isn't that much carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, but it is still very important. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps trap heat coming...more
Methane is a kind of gas. There is a small amount of methane in the air you breathe. A methane molecule has carbon and hydrogen atoms in it. Methane is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps make Earth...more
Most of the air in our atmosphere is made of nitrogen gas. But there are other gases in our atmosphere that contain nitrogen as well. They make up only a small fraction of the air molecules in our atmosphere,...more
Even though only a tiny amount of the gases in Earth’s atmosphere are greenhouse gases, they have a huge effect on climate. There are several different types of greenhouse gases. The major ones are carbon...more
There are many different ways that the plants, animals and other life on our planet, affect climate. Some produce greenhouses gases that trap heat and aid global warming through the greenhouse effect,...more