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Facts about the Greenhouse Effect

written by: Brekke Bounds•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 10/31/2010

Learn the facts about the greenhouse effect such as a brief introduction to what it is, how it works, and how it is directly related to climate change. You will learn about how the Earth's temperature is rising and how greenhouse gases can cause this change as part of the greenhouse effect.

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    The greenhouse effect is a very important process on the planet Earth. Without the greenhouse effect life as we know it would not exist on this planet. Understanding the basics are very simple if you know the proper facts of the greenhouse effect, even if it seems like a complicated process.

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    Greenhouse Effect Overview

    The greenhouse effect is a process where energy that comes from the Sun is trapped in the atmosphere and helps to warm the planet.

    When energy from the Sun enters the Earth's atmosphere and hits the surface of the planet, 49% is absorbed into rocks, buildings, water and other parts of the surface of the Earth. 1268823 earth and sky The Earth then emits that energy back into the atmosphere. Gases in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and ozone are called greenhouse gases and trap that energy. These gases then emit heat energy in both directions, meaning that some of that energy heads back to earth while the rest of it rebounds all the way into space. The energy that is trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases warms our air and makes life on this planet possible.

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    Greenhouse Effect Facts

    • Radiation from the Sun enters the atmosphere primarily as shortwave radiation or visible light. Much of that radiation is absorbed by the Earth and reemitted as long-wave infrared radiation or heat energy. Visible light passes fairly easily through the atmosphere, while much of the heat energy is trapped by greenhouse gases. If the atmosphere was as transparent to heat energy as it is to visible light, the Earth's surface would be more than 60 degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than it is now.
    • The greenhouse effect keeps the Earth's temperature on average at about 13 to 15 degrees Celsius (or between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit).
    • The term greenhouse effect was first suggested by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s when he posited that the Earth's atmosphere must act as an insulator since the Earth was positioned so far from the Sun.
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    The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change

    The greenhouse effect plays a very important role in the concept of climate change and global warming. As mentioned above, the greenhouse effect helps to trap the Sun's energy keeping our planet warm enough to be habitable for our carbon-based life system. The greenhouse gases that make that energy capture possible can also cause climate change if they are present in excessive amounts. The more greenhouse gases that are in the atmosphere, the more heat energy is reflected back to the Earth.

    This means that the excessive addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere from industry, volcanic activity, motor vehicles and the reduction of surface vegetation can have a noticeable impact on the temperature and climate of our planet as well as on our way of life.

    The greenhouse effect is a very important part of the ecosystem on the planet Earth and by having a good understanding of these greenhouse effect facts and the gases that drive it, we can make positive changes as individuals, nations and as a planet to keep climate change at a minimum.

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    • Environmental Science: A Global Concern "Cunningham, William P., Mary Ann. Cunningham, and Barbara Woodworth. Saigo. Environmental Science: a Global Concern. Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill, 2003."