You’ve probably heard terms like “greenhouse gas” and “greenhouse effect” before. The greenhouse effect and the atmospheric gases that create it are key components of Earth’s climate system. But what does all of this mean, in general and with regards to our changing climate?
Let’s start from the bottom. Our atmosphere, the air we breathe every day, is a mix of different gases. Most of the air we breathe is nitrogen (78%), and oxygen (20%), with small amounts of other gases in the mix as well. Some of these gases, like carbon dioxide and methane, are called greenhouse gases and have an effect on Earth’s climate that is far larger than the small percentage of the atmosphere’s composition that they make up.
A greenhouse gas is one that traps radiation and heat energy emitted by the Earth’s surface, preventing it from escaping back into space. These gases are so named because the effect they have on our planet is similar to that of a greenhouse that allows plants to be grown in the winter. Just like a greenhouse traps the sun’s energy, keeping the inside of the greenhouse warm enough for plants to grow, greenhouse gases trap the sun’s energy and keep the Earth warm enough for life to exist.
This is why we get the terms “greenhouse gas” and “greenhouse effect”. Without the natural greenhouse effect, Earth would be far too cold for plants, animals, and humans to live here. However, in recent years, we have been increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and thus increasing the amount of heat that gets trapped on our planet. In the chart below from Climate Central, you can see that none of the ways humans emit greenhouse gases are natural.
By increasing the greenhouse effect far beyond what it would naturally be, humans are causing too much heat to be trapped on our planet, which has thrown the climate system out of balance. The two biggest sources of greenhouse gases are electricity and transportation. Check out options for renewable energy use in your area! Even if you can’t put solar panels on your house, you may be able to make arrangements with your power company to have your electricity come from renewable sources like wind, solar, or hydroelectric power!
©2018 Meteorologist Margaret Orr
Photo credits: Climate Central, climatekids.nasa.gov
For more information about climate change, visit https://www.globalweatherclimatecenter.com/climate-topics