How Does Greenhouse Gases Cause Global Warming

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Many of the chemical compounds in the Earth’s atmosphere act as greenhouse gases. When sunlight hits the Earth’s surface, some of it radiates out into space as infrared radiation (heat). Greenhouse gases absorb this infrared radiation and trap the heat in the atmosphere, creating a greenhouse effect that results in global warming and climate change.

How Does Greenhouse Gases Cause Global Warming

How Does Greenhouse Gases Cause Global Warming

Many gases exhibit these greenhouse properties. Some gases occur in nature and are also produced by human activities. Some, like industrial gases, are produced exclusively by humans.

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Without naturally occurring greenhouse gases, the earth would be too cold to support life as we know it. Without the greenhouse effect, the earth’s average temperature would be about -2°F instead of the 57°F we currently experience.

Several important greenhouse gases resulting from human activities are included in U.S. and international estimates of greenhouse gas emissions:

Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas, but most scientists believe that water vapor produced directly by human activities contributes very little to the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. Therefore, the US Energy Information Administration () does not estimate water vapor emissions.

Ozone is technically a greenhouse gas, but it is helpful or harmful depending on where it is found in Earth’s atmosphere. Ozone occurs naturally at higher altitudes in the atmosphere (the stratosphere) where it prevents ultraviolet (UV) light harmful to plant and animal life from reaching the Earth’s surface. The protective benefits of stratospheric ozone outweigh its contribution to the greenhouse effect. The United States and countries around the world ban and control the production and use of numerous industrial gases that destroy atmospheric ozone and create holes in the ozone layer. Learn more about protecting the ozone layer. At lower altitudes in the atmosphere (troposphere), ozone is harmful to human health. Learn more about ground-level ozone pollution and what is being done to reduce ozone pollution. By increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are amplifying the planet’s natural greenhouse effect and raising the level of global warming.

How Do Greenhouse Gases Contribute To Global Warming?

The greenhouse effect is a good thing. It warms the planet to temperatures that keep life on earth, well, livable. Without it, the world would be more like Mars: a frozen, uninhabitable place. The problem is that the voracious use of fossil fuels to produce energy is artificially amplifying the natural greenhouse effect. The result? An increase in global warming that is altering the planet’s climate system. Here’s a look at what the greenhouse effect is, what causes it, and how we can mitigate its contribution to climate change.

The greenhouse effect is the natural warming of the earth that occurs when gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun that would otherwise escape into space. The process was identified by scientists in the 1800s.

Sunlight, with the natural process of the greenhouse effect, makes the earth habitable. While about 30% of solar energy (the light and heat from the sun) that reaches our world is reflected back into space, the rest is absorbed by the atmosphere or Earth’s surface. This process, which occurs constantly around the world, warms the planet. This heat is then radiated in the form of invisible infrared radiation. While some of this infrared light continues into space, the vast majority is absorbed by atmospheric gases, known as greenhouse gases, causing further warming.

How Does Greenhouse Gases Cause Global Warming

But higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, and in particular carbon dioxide (CO2), are causing further heat to be trapped and global average temperatures to rise. For most of the last 800,000 years – much longer than human civilization has existed – the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has been roughly between 200 and 280 parts per million. (In other words, there were 200 to 280 gas molecules per million molecules of air.) But over the past century that concentration has increased. In 2013, due to the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million, a concentration not seen on the planet for millions of years. In 2023, it reached more than 420 parts per million, or 50% higher than pre-industrial levels.

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Earth’s greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and warm the planet. The main gases responsible for the greenhouse effect include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor. In addition to these natural compounds, synthetic fluorinated gases also function as greenhouse gases. Different greenhouse gases have different chemical properties and are removed from the atmosphere, over time, through various processes. Carbon dioxide, for example, is absorbed by “carbon sinks” such as forests, soil and the ocean. Fluorinated gases are only destroyed by sunlight in the upper atmosphere.

Radiative forcing (RF) is another way to measure greenhouse gases (and other climate factors, such as the sun’s brightness and large volcanic eruptions). Also known as climate forcing, RF tells the difference between how much solar energy is absorbed by the earth and how much is released into space as a result of any climate factor. A climate factor with a positive RF value indicates that it has a warming effect on the planet; a negative value represents cooling.

The release of greenhouse gases associated with human activities and climate change is called greenhouse gas emissions or climate pollution. And since the start of the industrial revolution and the advent of coal-fired steam engines, human activities have exceeded the volume of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere. It is estimated that between 1750 and 2019, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increased by 47%, methane by 156%, and nitrous oxide by 23%. In the late 1920s, we started adding artificial fluorinated gases like chlorofluorocarbons to the mix.

In recent decades we have only accelerated the pace. Of all human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, about half have been generated in the last 30 years alone. And while global greenhouse gas emissions have occasionally leveled off or declined year over year (most recently at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the pause in global travel and manufacturing reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 6%), are accelerating once again.

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Accounting for nearly 80% of global human-caused emissions, carbon dioxide sticks around for quite some time. Once emitted into the atmosphere, 40% still remains after 100 years, 20% after 1,000 years and 10% up to 10,000 years later. (The lifespan of carbon dioxide cannot be represented with a single value because the gas is not destroyed over time, but instead moves between different parts of the ocean, atmosphere, and land. A portion of carbon dioxide It is absorbed quickly, but some will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.)

Methane (CH4) persists in the atmosphere for about 12 years, a shorter time than carbon dioxide, but is much more powerful in terms of the greenhouse effect. In fact, pound for pound, its impact on global warming is almost 30 times greater than that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. In the United States, methane accounted for more than 12% of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. While methane can come from natural sources such as wetlands, more than half of all global methane emissions come from human activities such as natural gas production and livestock farming. based agriculture.

Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas: it has a GWP that is approximately 270 times that of carbon dioxide on a 100-year time scale and remains in the atmosphere, on average, for just over a century. It accounts for about 6% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, coming from sources such as fertilizers used in agriculture.

How Does Greenhouse Gases Cause Global Warming

Emitted by a variety of manufacturing and industrial processes, fluorinated gases are man-made. There are four main categories: hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).

Greenhouse Effect And Global Warming

Although fluorinated gases are emitted in smaller quantities than other greenhouse gases (they account for 3% of U.S. emissions), they trap substantially more heat. Indeed, the GWP of these gases can range from thousands to tens of thousands and they have long atmospheric lives, in some cases tens of thousands of years.

HFCs are used as replacements for ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), usually in air conditioners and refrigerators, but some are being phased out due to their high GWP. Replacing these HFCs and disposing of them correctly is considered one of the most important climate actions the world can take.

The most abundant greenhouse gas of all, water vapor, differs from other greenhouse gases in that changes in its atmospheric concentrations are not directly linked to human activities, but rather to global warming.

From the other greenhouse gases we emit. Warmer air holds more water. And because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, more water absorbs more heat, inducing even more warming and perpetuating a positive feedback loop. (It is worth noting, however, that the net impact of this feedback loop is still uncertain,

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