The Greenhouse Effect

Standard Page - 2009-07-15
The Earth's atmosphere is made up of a blanket of gases, which trap enough heat to sustain life. However, by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, humans pump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. We also add other gasses to the atmosphere in smaller quantities. These emissions add to the natural canopy of gases in the atmosphere, trapping more heat from the sun's rays, and increasing the greenhouse effect. As a result, the global temperature is increasing, throwing the world's climate out of balance.

The Earth's atmosphere is made up of a blanket of gases, which trap enough heat to sustain life. However, by burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, humans pump billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. We also add other gasses to the atmosphere in smaller quantities. These emissions add to the natural canopy of gases in the atmosphere, trapping more heat from the sun's rays, and increasing the greenhouse effect.

As a result, the global temperature is increasing, throwing the world's climate out of balance.

What's changed?

While many greenhouse gases occur naturally, the rate humans are adding them to the atmosphere is far from natural. It is estimated that concentrations of carbon dioxide are now more than one third higher than before the industrial revolution, when the large scale burning of fossil fuels and modern industry and agricultural practices began. Humans are also creating new, very potent greenhouse gases such as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from industrial activities.

Even if all greenhouse gas emissions were stopped today, the effects from past activities will persist for many centuries, due to the long life of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the long time required for transfer of heat from the atmosphere to the deep oceans.

What this means is that every day the amount of warming gasses in the atmosphere increases with inevitable consequences - making it harder and harder for us to reign in climate change. For now, though, we still can largely choose our climate future.

Learn more about climate science:

Carbon dioxide
Super greenhouse gases: F-gases
Deforestation and climate change
Scientific consensus on climate change
Climate research

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