The greenhouse effect is the process through which the Earth’s surface is warmed by the energy radiating from the Sun. The process is completely natural and it entails the absorbtion by the Earth’s atmosphere of the Sun’s energy. This energy is later re-radiated by the so-called greenhouse gases. Some of these greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, water vapor, methane, and some other artificial chemicals. All this absorbed energy is what makes the surface of the Earth warm and what allows life to exist on Earth. But the greenhouse effect has come to mean something more in recent years. What causes the greenhouse effect made by man?
Unfortunately, we use the term greenhouse effect to also describe the increase of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This increase leads to the Earth absorbing more heat than normal. This type of greenhouse effect is man-made, and it is caused by activities such as burning fossil fuels or agriculture.
While the Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is necessary to sustain life and is not damaging in any way, the human-made greenhouse effect is one of the major causes of global warming. What we are going to be exploring today is what causes the greenhouse effect that leads to global warming, and whether there is any possibility of undoing it.
The Steps of the Greenhouse Effect
- Radiation from the Sun reaches the Earth. The Earth sends part of it is back into space.
- The Earth absorbs the leftover energy, causing it to heat up.
- Heat radiates from Earth to space.
- Greenhouse gases collect part of the heat. This keeps the Earth warm and makes life on Earth possible.
- Humans are burning fossil fuels or engaging in agriculture or land clearing. As a result, more greenhouse gases are released in the atmosphere.
- This is causing an absorbtion of additional heat, which makes the Earth’s temperature rise above normal.
What Causes the Greenhouse Effect?
The amount of greenhouse gases found in the Earth’s atmosphere has increased dramatically in recent years. The increase is due to human activities that release such gases. Greenhouse gases can be released from the smallest daily activities such as driving or using electricity. Since these gases are what causes the greenhouse effect, let’s take a look at the factors that establish their effect on climate change and global warming.
One of the most important factors is the quantity of specific greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Men produce some types of greenhouse gases more than others. The one that is the most common and controversial is carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is produced in larger quantities than any other greenhouse gas. So, it is what causes the greenhouse effect more than any other.
The period of time some greenhouse gases spend in the Earth’s atmosphere is also something to be taken into account. While some gases only spend a limited amount of time in the atmosphere, other can spend thousands of years here, severely affecting the climate.
Not all greenhouse gases absorb the same amount of heat from the Earth’s atmosphere. That is another factor to be considered when analyzing what causes the greenhouse effect. For instance, one pound of methane absorbs around 21 times more heat than one pound of carbon dioxide.
More about Carbon Dioxide
Humans emit carbon dioxide more than any other gas. Because greenhouse gases travel around the world as air does, the concentration of carbon dioxide is more or less the same no matter where you measure it in the world. Of course, some countries do produce more carbon dioxide than other. However, the dire consequences apply to the entire world in the same way.
Carbon dioxide is produced whenever carbon and oxygen, both elements found in the air we breathe, mix and create this greenhouse gas. Each time someone burns a type of fossil fuel, they are contributing to the increase of carbon dioxide in the world.
Naturally, carbon moves from one part of the Earth to another through what is called the carbon cycle. But the issue facing our world today is that we are releasing more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than such natural processes as the carbon cycle are able to remove. This increase in carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is what causes the greenhouse effect, contributing to global warming.
Other Causes of the Greenhouse Effect
Besides the burning of fossil fuels, what else causes the greenhouse effect? One of the answers can be changes in land. What we mean by changes in land is mainly deforestation. And here is how this works. As we’ve previously seen, we can find carbon dioxide in plants and vegetation. This includes all types of trees on the surface of the Earth, and even in the soil. This is why when people cut down trees and change the land, the amount of carbon dioxide that was stored in those trees and soil gets released into the atmosphere.
How Do We Know the Climate Is Changing?
It is a general consensus that the greenhouse effect is one of the major causes of global warming and climate change. The predictions are grim, and scientists say that if we don’t collectively act against global warming soon, the consequences will be dire. But let’s see what are some of the signs that point towards a dramatic change in the Earth’s climate:
- Sea levels have increased from an average of 1.8 mm per year in 1961, to 3.1 mm per year in 1993.
- The amount of water vapor found in the atmosphere has also increased since the 1980s, because it is a known fact that warmer air can hold more water than cold air.
- Eleven of the warmest years since 1850 have been registered between 1996 and 2006.
- Mountain glaciers have started to melt, which also contributed to the rise of sea levels.
Can We Undo the Greenhouse Effect?
Unfortunately, most scientists agree that the greenhouse effect has damaged our planet too severely for us to reverse it in any way. But that is not stopping them from trying. There are things that us humans can do to combat what causes the greenhouse effect and attempt to reverse climate change:
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Humans release a considerably higher amount of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere than natural processes can eliminate. So the solution would be to either try and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or try to actually remove some of the greenhouse gases. Projects called greenhouse gas removal projects do exist. These projects aim to remove some of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, either directly or indirectly by influencing natural processes.
- Stop cutting down trees and plant new ones instead. Deforestation is a major issue nowadays. And this contributes to the fact that the environment cannot absorb greenhouse gases fast enough. Reforesting the planet would be another step in the right direction.
Even with efforts targeting the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the reforestation of the planet, it could take as long as 1,000 years until any really dramatic change to happen. And if this is the case, then what else can we do? Some scientists are starting to explore some other riskier and more controversial ways in which we could reverse climate change.
One of the options was discovered in 1991. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, the ash spewed by it made that year one of the coolest years in recent times. And this happened despite the continuous rise of greenhouse gases. But what cause this? The ash particles spread around the planet and blocked some of the heat radiating from the Sun. Scientists believe that it is possible to use a similar method to artificially cool down the Earth.
Another more controversial option involves sucking some of the carbon dioxide from the Earth’s atmosphere. This may not sound like much. After all, this is what trees usually do. But the technology we have now doesn’t seem to be capable of achieving such ambitious goals. Ideas range from plating artificial trees to putting up a wall of fans.
How Does It All Come Together?
We cannot deny such facts as climate change and global warming. They have been happening for years and are getting worse with each passing moment. The greenhouse effect is one of the main causes of such changes in the Earth’s climate. We have explored what causes the greenhouse effect, what are its consequences, and what can we do to undo it. All there is left to do now is to collectively engage in such activities that can help salvage our planet.