“Venus is too hot, Mars is too cold, and Earth is just right.” The fact that Earth has an average surface temperature comfortably between the boiling point and freezing point of water, and thus is suitable for our sort of life, cannot be explained by simply suggesting that our planet orbits at just the right distance from the sun to absorb just the right amount of solar radiation. Our moderate temperatures are also the result of having just the right kind of atmosphere. A Venus-type atmosphere would produce hellish, Venus-like conditions on our planet; a Mars atmosphere would leave us shivering in a Martian-type deep freeze.
Instead, parts of our atmosphere act as an insulating blanket of just the right thickness, trapping sufficient solar energy to keep the global average temperature in a pleasant range. The Martian blanket is too thin, and the Venusian blanket is way too thick! The ‘blanket’ here is a collection of atmospheric gases called ‘greenhouse gases’ based on the idea that the gases also ‘trap’ heat like the glass walls of a greenhouse do.Without these gases most life on earth would not be possible, as the surface temperature of the earth would likely be about 60°F colder.
Radiations from the Sun arrives at the top of Earth’s atmosphere.Solar radiation interacts with the surface of the earth in several ways. Some portion of this energy is reflected back into space by the earth’s atmosphere, another portion is dispersed and scattered by the molecules in the atmosphere and a large portion penetrates through the earth’s atmosphere to reach the surface of the earth. The radiation reaching the earth’s surface is largely absorbed resulting in surface warming.Much of this absorbed energy is eventually re-radiated in longer infrared wavelengths. As it leaves the earth, it once again interacts with the atmosphere. Some of this re-radiated energy escapes to space, but much of this re-radiated energy is reflected back to the earth’s surface by molecules in the earth’s atmosphere. This phenomenon is called Green house effect.it is similar to the warming that occurs in an automobile parked outside on a sunny day .
In essence, greenhouse gases act like an insulator or blanket above the earth, keeping the heat in. Increasing the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere increases the atmosphere’s ability to block the escape of infrared radiation. In other words, the earth’s insulator gets thicker. Therefore too great a concentration of greenhouse gases can have dramatic effects on climate and significant repercussions upon the world around us. Climates suitable for human existence do not exist above some minimum threshold level of greenhouse gas concentration.
Carbon dioxide () is one of the greenhouse gases. It consists of one carbon atom with an oxygen atom bonded to each side. When its atoms are bonded tightly together, the carbon dioxide molecule can absorb infrared radiation and the molecule starts to vibrate. Eventually, the vibrating molecule will emit the radiation again, and it will likely be absorbed by yet another greenhouse gas molecule. This absorption-emission-absorption cycle serves to keep the heat near the surface, effectively insulating the surface from the cold of space.
Carbon dioxide, water vapor (), methane (), nitorus oxide (), and a few other gases are greenhouse gases. They all are molecules composed of more than two component atoms, bound loosely enough together to be able to vibrate with the absorption of heat. The major components of the atmosphere ( and ) are two-atom molecules too tightly bound together to vibrate and thus they do not absorb heat and contribute to the greenhouse effect.
Atmospheric scientists first used the term ‘greenhouse effect’ in the early 1800s. At that time, it was used to describe the naturally occurring functions of trace gases in the atmosphere and did not have any negative connotations. It was not until the mid-1950s that the term greenhouse effect was coupled with concern over climate change. And in recent decades, we often hear about the greenhouse effect in somewhat negative terms. The negative concerns are related to the possible impacts of an enhanced greenhouse effect. It is important to remember that without the greenhouse effect, life on earth as we know it would not be possible.
What Factors Impact a Greenhouse?
In the atmospheric greenhouse effect, the type of surface that sunlight first encounters is the most important factor. Forests, grasslands, ocean surfaces, ice caps, deserts, and cities all absorb, reflect, and radiate radiation differently. Sunlight falling on a white glacier surface strongly reflects back into space, resulting in minimal heating of the surface and lower atmosphere. Sunlight falling on a dark desert soil is strongly absorbed, on the other hand, and contributes to significant heating of the surface and lower atmosphere. Cloud cover also affects greenhouse warming by both reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth’s surface and by reducing the amount of radiation energy emitted into space.
Scientists use the term albedo to define the percentage of solar energy reflected back by a surface. Understanding local, regional, and global albedo effects is critical to predicting global climate change.
The following are some of the factors that influence the earth’s albedo.
* Clouds: On a hot, sunny day, we usually welcome a big fluffy cumulus cloud passing overhead because we feel cooler immediately. That’s because the top of the cloud reflects sunlight back into space before it ever reaches earth. Depending on their altitude and optical properties, clouds either cool or warm the earth. Large, thick, relatively low-altitude clouds, such as cumulus and cumulonimbus, reflect incoming solar radiation and thereby reduce warming of the surface. The whitewash on plant greenhouses has the same effect on a smaller scale. High-altitude, thinner clouds, such as cirrus clouds, absorb longwave radiation reflected from the earth’s surface, causing increased warming.
* Surface albedo: Just as some clouds reflect solar energy into space, so do light-colored land surfaces. This surface albedo effect strongly influences the absorption of sunlight. Snow and ice cover are highly reflective, as are light-colored deserts. Large expanses of reflective surfaces can significantly reduce solar warming. Dark-colored land surfaces, in contrast, are strongly absorptive and contribute to warming. If global temperatures increase, snow and ice cover may shrink. The exposed darker surfaces underneath may absorb more solar radiation, causing further warming. The magnitude of the effect is currently a matter of serious scientific study and debate.
* Oceans: From space, oceans look much different than adjacent land areas - they often appear darker, suggesting that they should be absorbing far more sunlight. But unlike dry land, water absorbs energy in a dynamic fashion. Some of the solar energy contacting the surface may be carried away by currents, some may go into producing water vapor, and some may penetrate the surface and be mixed meters deep into the water column. These factors combine to make the influence of the ocean surface an extremely complex and difficult phenomenon to predict.Water also has the capacity to store heat and transport large amounts of heat energy. In addition, oceans are an important sink (storage site) for atmospheric , and their ability to absorb is strongly related to ocean temperature.Because of their enormous size and depth, oceans are extremely important in determining global climate and the future rate of global temperature change.
* Forested areas: Like the oceans, the interaction of forests and sunlight is complex. The amount of solar radiation absorbed by forest vegetation depends upon the type and color of vegetation, the time of year, and how well watered and healthy the plants are. In general, plants provide a dark surface, so you might expect high solar absorption. A significant fraction of the solar radiation is captured by the plants and used to make food through photosynthesis (and thus it doesn’t re-radiate as heat); some of the energy is dissipated as water evaporates from plant leaves; and some is absorbed and distributed deep within the forest canopy. These complexities make a simple definition of forest influences impossible.
How Do Humans Contribute to the Greenhouse Effect?
While the greenhouse effect is an essential environmental prerequisite for life on Earth, there really can be too much of a good thing.
The problems begin when human activities distort and accelerate the natural process by creating more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than are necessary to warm the planet to an ideal temperature.
* Burning natural gas, coal and oil —including gasoline for automobile engines—raises the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
* Some farming practices and land-use changes increase the levels of methane and nitrous oxide.
* Many factories produce long-lasting industrial gases that do not occur naturally, yet contribute significantly to the enhanced greenhouse effect and “global warming” that is currently under way.
Deforestation also contributes to global warming. Trees use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen in its place, which helps to create the optimal balance of gases in the atmosphere. As more forests are logged for timber or cut down to make way for farming, however, there are fewer trees to perform this critical function.
* Population growth is another factor in global warming, because as more people use fossil fuels for heat, transportation and manufacturing the level of greenhouse gases continues to increase. As more farming occurs to feed millions of new people, more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere.
Ultimately, more greenhouse gases means more infrared radiation trapped and held, which gradually increases the temperature of the Earth’s surface and the air in the lower atmosphere.