What is Greenhouse Effect and What are Greenhouse Gases?


A greenhouse is a house made up of glass. It can be used to grow flowers and plants as it has glass walls and a glass roof. When sun shines, it warms the plants and air inside. The heat that is grabbed inside the greenhouse can’t escape out and therefore it remains warmer which is essential for the plants growth as it helps them in the process of photosynthesis.

Now, the Earth’s atmosphere does the same as greenhouse do. During the day when the sun shines, it heats up the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth absorbs some of this energy and heats up. At night, when temperature goes down, the Earth cools down by giving different form of energy called as infrared radiation. But, before this heat gets escape back into the space, it is absorbed by the greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere. This is what makes the Earth’s surface warmer too that makes it possible for the survival of human beings on this planet. Without greenhouse effect, this planet would be a very cold place to survive for human mankind.

In a nutshell, the greenhouse effect is a natural process by which the radiation from the sun warms the Earth’s surface enough to support human life. According to NASA, it’s this equilibrium of incoming and outgoing radiation
that maintains the average temperature of Earth to about 59 degrees Fahrenheit i.e. 15 degrees Celsius.

The alarm bells have been ringing since as far back as the nineteen fifties about the looming crises due to the increased levels of what has been termed greenhouse gasses in our earth’s atmosphere. No-one really knew just how serious the consequences were of allowing greenhouse gasses to increase unchecked until recent years. Today, those consequences are clearly visible and also felt;

Even if we didn’t have greenhouse gases, were going to have to move away from fossil fuels, as we’re going to run out. They’re finite, whereas solar and wind are infinite.
~Ted Turner

Consequences of increased levels of greenhouse gasses due to human activity

  • Higher temperatures in previously cold regions such as Alaska, USA.
  • Higher sea temperatures and rising sea levels.
  • Extreme weather patterns and high incidences of storms due to changing effects of earth’s ice shelf.

Fortunately, more information in layman’s terms is widely available. What you are about to read next follows that trend and serves as a brief introduction to what has been termed the greenhouse effect by scientists. It will also help clear up one or two misconceptions about the greenhouse effect.

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  • Greenhouse effect is responsible for today’s global warming and climate change.
  • Global warming and climate change happened before in earth’s history so this remains a natural phenomenon.

The greenhouse effect in a nutshell is this. As a natural process it is actually a good thing. The term was originally coined from close observations within a nursery’s greenhouse. The glass that absorbs the sun’s UV rays acts as a filter and serves as a metaphor for the way the earth’s atmosphere currently warms the earth. This greenhouse effect is in essence necessary to warm the earth and is not the reason why temperatures have risen so dramatically over the last few years.

How Greenhouse Effect Works?

While the sun’s rays are harmful to the earth and all life on it, its rays are also necessary life giving sources of energy. The greenhouse effect, while controlling the sun’s harmful rays, retains the sun’s energy within the earth’s atmosphere.

  • Absorbed energy is transferred back to earth’s atmosphere as heat.
  • While heat moves through and out of earth’s atmosphere, greenhouse gases absorb much of it.
  • After this absorption, most of the heat is transferred into the earth.

These are the key features

The key features of the greenhouse effect can be highlighted as follows. To emphasize, note that the greenhouse effect acts as a necessary buffering system against the sun’s rays. So, these features should be regarded as inherently positive.

  • A natural stabilizer – We know that the sun’s temperature and its rays are harmful to us. What the greenhouse effect essentially entails is acting as a stabilizer of these extreme effects and allowing the earth to remain cooler for much longer.
  • The mirror effect – Think of it as image projecting. You are able to check your image in the mirror and correct it. Also, the greenhouse mirror is thick enough to withstand the sun’s rays, causing it to reflect back out of the earth’s atmosphere.
  • A life-giving source – By stabilizing temperatures to moderate levels on average, the greenhouse effect acts as a giver of life. The extreme alternatives; very high temperatures and cold temperatures well below zero are not conducive to life.
  • The blanket effect – To continue from the first remark made about the greenhouse effect being a natural stabilizer, it can also be regarded as a metaphor for keeping all life, flora and fauna, warm in extremely cold temperatures.
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The earth’s atmosphere remains vulnerable to the deadly effects of greenhouse gasses mainly due to humankind’s actions and its laggard responses to critically address the warnings made by climatologists. Perhaps the term ‘greenhouse gasses’ needs to be rephrased in the context of today’s dramatic effects of global warming and climate change because the term is misunderstood.

Greenhouse Gases

A re-think may be required in regard to the naming of the greenhouse effect and its natural follower greenhouse gases. Most people correctly associate this with global warming and climate change but inadvertently remain ignorant of the true nature of these terms. In all its natural form, what makes up the effect and gases are listed here;

  • Carbon dioxide – It is naturally made up of carbon and dioxide. Before the onset of the industrial revolution, CO2 was at a manageable and sustainable level. Today, it is measured to be over 400 parts per million volume, dangerously high due to the increased rate of burning fossil fuels.
  • Methane – It is said to be more powerful than carbon dioxide and yet there are only small quantities of it found in the earth’s atmosphere. Methane gas is burned to produce fuel, but man’s contribution to this has resulted in the earth’s temperature rising rapidly over the years. It contains just one carbon but has four hydrogen atoms.
  • Water vapor and Nitrous dioxide – along with carbon dioxide and methane, these gases are held together loosely, allowing them to vibrate. When they vibrate, they produce heat and release radiation.

Links between greenhouse effect, global warming and climate change

This next explanation should go a long way towards helping to clear the confusion or misunderstanding on the true greenhouse effect and its purpose and now also its association with global warming and climate change.

  • Greenhouse gases contribute towards the greenhouse effect. Before industrialization and the rapid rise in the world’s population, this was always at a manageable level, allowing the effect to warm the earth in a balanced, natural way. But with industrialization, greenhouse gasses increased dramatically.
  • It is also important to note the key differences between climate change and global warming. Here, this is noted briefly. Climate change basically means a shift in the globe’s weather patterns mainly due to human actions.
  • Global warming, as the terms states, means that the Earth’s temperature is rising rapidly and record temperature highs are being recorded since readings were first taken. This is mainly due to the increased levels of greenhouse gasses being released into the earth’s atmosphere.
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Causes of Greenhouse Gases

Since before the beginning of the previous century, humankind has been responsible for the rapid increase of the earth’s temperature and not the greenhouse effect and the natural process of global warming that accompanies it.

  • Industrialization – Since before the twentieth century, the increased levels of greenhouse gasses have contributed to the excessive burning of human-induced fossil fuels and the release of more heat into the earth’s atmosphere.
  • Dumping – Human waste is made up of high levels of carbon dioxide and methane gas which disenables the natural greenhouse effect’s ability to transfer energy normally.
  • Artificial power – Motorized and electrical processes are another harmful contributor towards raising the bar of the new greenhouse gas effect.
  • Deforestation – The cutting down of forests within the earth’s green lungs is a major debilitating contributor towards the earth’s inability to process natural transmissions of the sun’s energy via the greenhouse gas effect.
  • Agriculture – Industrialized agriculture (and not organic farming) has seen to it that far too much carbon dioxide and methane gas has entered the earth’s atmosphere. This is from the carbons and gas released by large herds of cattle and other agricultural animal species.

In conclusion, there is no time to delay necessary action. At least now that you have a brief overview of what the greenhouse effect is, you are empowered with the knowledge to make a difference and actively campaign to reduce the dangerous effects greenhouse gases caused by humankind and not the scientific expression of the greenhouse effect are having on our earth’s atmosphere.

Photo by: pixabay

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