What is the Greenhouse Effect?

What is the Greenhouse Effect?
At some point or another you have probably heard about the greenhouse effect. It comes up when talking about both other planets and our own. But do you know how it works? What is the greenhouse effect? What are greenhouse gasses? And what role does the greenhouse effect play on Earth? We’ll try to explain the greenhouse effect in a way that everyone can understand.

How Does a Greenhouse Work?

Have you ever seen a greenhouse in someone’s garden? They are typically made of made of clear glass or plastic. People use greenhouses to grow grow various plants, like flowers or vegetables.

Greenhouses are an effective way to grow plants because of their ability to trap heat inside. Because greenhouses allow sunlight to enter, plants and air inside them can get nice and warm. The walls of a greenhouse then work to keep that warmth from escaping. So even at night, when the sunlight goes away, the inside of a greenhouse can remain warm because the heat from earlier in the day has no way to get out.

What is the Greenhouse Effect?

You can think of Earth as being one giant greenhouse*. Instead of glass walls, however, our planet’s greenhouse is created by the Earth’s atmosphere.

Within our atmosphere are greenhouse gasses, things like water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. These gasses allow most, but not all, sunlight to reach the surface of the Earth, warming our planet. At night, some of this heat escapes back into space. However, thanks to greenhouse gasses, much of this heat gets trapped in our atmosphere, keeping Earth warm.

To better understand the importance of the greenhouse effect, we can look at the average temperature of the Earth. Without greenhouse gases, the average temperature of Earth’s surface would be about 0 °F, rather than the present average of 59 °F. That’s a huge difference!

How Does the Greenhouse Effect Impact Climate Change?

Scientists have found a close correlation between carbon dioxide levels and global temperature. Remember that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. For the past several thousand years, carbon dioxide levels have naturally fluctuated, resulting in warmer or cooler global temperatures.

Starting around the Industrial Revolution (mid-18th century), human activity has accounted for a nearly 40% increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Much of this increase comes from the burning of fossil fuels, things like coal, oil, and natural gas. Deforestation, changes in land use, and agriculture also have some impact on carbon dioxide levels, but not as much as fossil fuels.

All of this is to say that the greenhouse effect gets stronger as more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. More greenhouse gases increase the global temperature average. At our current rate, it has been estimated that Earth’s average surface temperature could pass historic levels as early as 2047.

How Can We Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

There are many ways a person can “reduce their carbon footprint” and help limit the effects of climate change.

Your carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air because of your own energy needs. Here are just a few ways you can reduce carbon dioxide emissions:

  • Use energy saving light bulbs
  • Turn off electronics when you don’t need them
  • Unplug unused appliances
  • Carpool, walk, or ride a bike when it’s an option
  • Plant trees
  • Grow your own vegetables
  • Recycle everything you can
  • Conserve water

These are just a few ideas of many. One of the best things you can do to help our planet is to simply learn about how it works. When people have a better understanding of why certain things happen on Earth, it is easier to find real solutions to some of the tougher problems.

If you would like to learn more about climate change, we suggest playing through this basic slideshow quiz – An Introduction to Climate Change.

*It is worth noting that the term “greenhouse effect” is a bit of a misnomer. Greenhouses are not primarily warmed by the greenhouse effect. Instead, most greenhouses are warmed through the reduction of convection. The greenhouse effect works by preventing absorbed heat from leaving through radiative transfer. Still, use of the term “greenhouse effect” provides one with a nice way of visualizing and understanding the process.

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