What are Greenhouse Gases?

What are Greenhouse Gases?

Photo Credit: Glacier Bay

Polluted Sky

Curvature of Earth

Greenhouse gases are at the heart of the global warming equation.

The gases ammonia, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane gas, and a class of gases collectively known as the chlorofluorocarbons, are all referred to as the greenhouse gases. These are the damaging gases that are contained in the pollution coming out of our factories, as well as the exhaust coming out of our automobiles. These gases together are primarily responsible for producing the effect referred to by scientists as the greenhouse effect.

To state it in its most simplest terms, the greenhouse effect can be described as being like a blanket. In the same way that you might cover yourself up with a blanket to stay warm, the greenhouse gases are like a blanket for the Earth. They wrap around the planet and retain the sun’s energy in our atmosphere, holding it in, and trapping in the heat. When the sun’s energy strikes the surface of our planet, the energy reflects back up and the heat gets trapped in by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The Natural Greenhouse Effect

In this important way, the greenhouse effect is actually a natural part of our environment. And it is critical for making life possible. Without the greenhouse effect, the warmth provided by the sun would just bounce off the surface of the planet, and the heat would radiate away into outer space, leaving our world behind far too cold for life to exist. We depend on the greenhouse effect for our lives and as well as all of the life on the planet.

On the other hand, when human activities add additional greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, such as the carbon monoxide and the methane we discussed above, this is when the natural greenhouse effect is increased beyond its normal range. This increase leads to the result scientists describe as global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states that it is extremely likely that human activity became the dominant cause of global warming in the time period following the industrial revolution.

The Impact of Fossil Fuels

Of the human activities contributing to global warming, the extracting and burning of fossil fuels is considered to be the principal cause. NASA estimates that humans have increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by more than a third since the Industrial Revolution began, mostly as a result of the burning of fossil fuels. A global effort and initiative towards low-carbon renewable energy is the most critical aspect in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and reducing the rate of global warming and climate change. But what do we mean when we use the words ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’? In this next section we will take a look at exactly what we mean when we use these different words.

Cars in Rush Hour

Smog Over Los Angeles

Next up: What is the difference between ‘global warming,’ and ‘climate change?’