Greenhouse effect

July 17, 2012, 8:52 pm
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caption Figure 1: As illustrated in the diagram above, of all the sunlight that passes through the atmosphere annually, only 51% is available at the Earth's surface to do work. This energy is used to heat the Earth's surface and lower atmosphere, melt and evaporate water, and run photosynthesis in plants. Of the other 49%, 4% is reflected back to space by the Earth's surface, 26% is scattered or reflected to space by clouds and atmospheric particles, and 19% is absorbed by atmospheric gases and clouds. (Source:

The greenhouse effect is a naturally occurring process that aids in heating the Earth's surface and atmosphere. It results from the fact that certain atmospheric gases, such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane, are able to change the energy balance of the planet by absorbing longwave radiation emitted from the Earth's surface. Without the greenhouse effect life on this planet would probably not exist as the average temperature of the Earth would be a chilly -18° Celsius, rather than the present 15° Celsius.

As energy from the sun passes through the atmosphere a number of things take place (see Figure 1). A portion of the energy (26% globally) is reflected or scattered back to space by clouds and other atmospheric particles. About 19% of the energy available is absorbed by clouds, gases (like ozone), and particles in the atmosphere. Of the remaining 55% of the solar energy passing through the Earth's atmosphere, 4% is reflected from the surface back to space. On average, about 51% of the sun's radiation reaches the surface. This energy is then used in a number of processes, including the heating of the ground surface; the melting of ice and snow and the evaporation of water; and plant photosynthesis.

caption Figure 2: The diagram above illustrates the greenhouse effect. This process begins with the absorption of shortwave radiation from the sun. Absorption causes the solar energy to be converted into sensible heat at the Earth's surface. Some of this heat is transferred to the lower atmosphere by conduction and convection. After the heating of the ground and the lower atmosphere, these surfaces become radiators of infrared or longwave radiation and they begin to cool. This emission of energy is directed to space. However, only a portion of this energy actually makes it through the atmosphere. About 70% of the longwave radiation emitted from the Earth's surface is absorbed by the atmosphere's greenhouse gases. (Source:

The heating of the ground by sunlight causes the Earth's surface to become a radiator of energy in the longwave band (sometimes called infrared radiation). This emission of energy is generally directed to space (see Figure 2). However, only a small portion of this energy actually makes it back to space. The majority of the outgoing infrared radiation is absorbed by the greenhouse gases (see Figure 3).

Absorption of longwave radiation by the atmosphere causes additional heat energy to be added to the Earth's atmospheric system. The now warmer atmospheric greenhouse gas molecules begin radiating longwave energy in all directions. Over 90% of this emission of longwave energy is directed back to the Earth's surface where it once again is absorbed by the surface. The heating of the ground by the longwave radiation causes the ground surface to once again radiate, repeating the cycle described above, again and again, until no more longwave is available for absorption.

caption Figure 3: Annual (1987) quantity of outgoing longwave radiation absorbed in the atmosphere. Image created by the CoVis Greenhouse Effect Visualizer. (Source:

The amount of heat energy added to the atmosphere by the greenhouse effect is controlled by the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere. All of the major greenhouse gases have increased in concentration since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (about 1700 AD). As a result of these higher concentrations, scientists predict that the greenhouse effect will be enhanced and the Earth's climate will become warmer. Predicting the amount of warming is accomplished by computer modeling. Computer models suggest that a doubling of the concentration of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, may raise the average global temperature between 1 and 3° Celsius. However, the numeric equations of computer models do not accurately simulate the effects of a number of possible negative feedbacks. For example, many of the models cannot properly simulate the negative effects that increased cloud cover would have on the radiation balance of a warmer Earth. Increasing the Earth's temperature would cause the oceans to evaporate greater amounts of water, causing the atmosphere to become cloudier. These extra clouds would then reflect a greater proportion of the sun's energy back to space reducing the amount of solar radiation absorbed by the atmosphere and the Earth's surface. With less solar energy being absorbed at the surface, the effects of an enhanced greenhouse effect may be counteracted.

A number of gases are involved in the human-caused enhancement of the greenhouse effect (see Table 1). These gases include: carbon dioxide (CO2); methane (CH4); nitrous oxide (N2O); chlorofluorocarbons (CFXClX); and tropospheric ozone (O3). Of these gases, the single most important gas is carbon dioxide which accounts for about 63% of the change in the intensity of the Earth's greenhouse effect as measured in 2005 (Foster et al., 2007). The contributions of the other gases are 18% for methane, 10% for chlorofluorocarbons, and 6% for nitrous oxide. Ozone's contribution to the enhancement of greenhouse effect is still yet to be quantified.


Table 1: Gases involved in the Greenhouse Effect: Past and present concentration and source Note that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are not natural but produced by a variety of industrial processes. CFCs first began entering the Earth’s atmosphere in the 1920s. [PPM = parts per million; PPB = parts per billion; PPT = parts per trillion].

Greenhouse Gas Concentration-1700 Concentration-2005 Percent Change Natural and Anthropogenic Sources
Carbon dioxide 278 PPM 379 PPM 36% Organic decay; Forest fires; Volcanoes; Burning fossil fuels; Deforestation; Land-use change
Methane 715 PPB 1774 PPB 152% Wetlands; Organic decay; Termites; Natural gas & oil extraction; Biomass burning; Rice cultivation; Cattle; Refuse landfills
Nitrous oxide 270 PPB 319 PPB 18 % Forests; Grasslands; Oceans; Soils; Soil cultivation; Fertilizers; Biomass burning; Burning of fossil fuels
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) 0 868 PPT Not Applicable Refrigerators; Aerosol spray propellants; Cleaning solvents
Ozone Unknown Varies with latitude and altitude in the atmosphere Global levels have generally decreased in the stratosphere and increased near the Earth's surface Created naturally by the action of sunlight on molecular oxygen and artificially through photochemical smog production


In summary, the greenhouse effect causes the atmosphere to trap more heat energy at the Earth's surface and within the atmosphere by absorbing and re-emitting longwave energy. Of the longwave energy emitted back to space, 90% is intercepted and absorbed by greenhouse gases. Without the greenhouse effect the Earth's average global temperature would be -18° Celsius, rather than the present 15° Celsius. In the last few centuries, the activities of humans have directly or indirectly caused the concentration of the major greenhouse gases to increase. Scientists predict that this increase may enhance the greenhouse effect making the planet warmer. Some experts estimate that the Earth's average global temperature has already increased by 0.3 to 0.6° Celsius, since the beginning of this century, because of this enhancement. Predictions of future climates indicate that by the middle of the next century the Earth's global temperature may be 1 to 3° Celsius higher than today.

Further Reading

  • Forster, P., V. Ramaswamy, P. Artaxo, T. Berntsen, R. Betts, D.W. Fahey, J. Haywood, J. Lean, D.C. Lowe, G. Myhre, J. Nganga, R. Prinn, G. Raga, M. Schulz and R. Van Dorland. 2007. Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.


Pidwirny, M. (2012). Greenhouse effect. Retrieved from


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