How Does the Greenhouse Effect Work?

Climate change has become a huge concern for the general public. It’s gone from a distant concern to frequent topic of discussion in the news. But at the same time, it’s a very complex subject.
Individual parts often end up neglected as people try to get a broad grasp of it. In particular, people wonder how does the greenhouse effect work. Within this article we’ll examine the question and how it relates to climate change.

Considering Actual Greenhouses

The term greenhouse effect didn’t come about by accident. An environmental greenhouse effect is a direct allusion to actual greenhouses. But to properly understand that comparison one must first look at greenhouses.

When people walk into a greenhouse they’ll typically notice a few points. The first point one notices simply comes from transparency. A greenhouse typically has transparent glass or plastic as a wall or ceiling.

Next, one typically notices high levels of humidity within a greenhouse. And of course there’s also far more heat than usual. One important point there comes from temperatures. It’s typically quite easy to have a hot greenhouse even during rather cold periods.

Solar Energy

Before finishing up with this comparison, one must next consider the role of sunlight. Despite the term, sunlight isn’t just about illumination. Sunlight is actually a powerful form of energy. This is why solar power is able to power machines. One can think of sunlight as direct transmission of energy from the sun to earth.

This is also why greenhouses are hot. The sunlight comes down and directly heats a greenhouse. And of course the plants within that greenhouse have access to the energy as well.

The process of their metabolism adds even more energy to the process. On top of that they put other metabolites into the environment. For example, plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen.

Moving Up to a Global Level

Earth's greenhouse effect

Asking how does the greenhouse effect work is in large part asking how this relates to the earth. The simplest answer comes from looking at the atmosphere as the walls of a standard greenhouse. Obviously there’s some more complexity to this process. But this metaphor stands up surprisingly well.

To continue from the metaphor, one can think of all the life on earth. Again, one should remember the overall level of complexity involved. A standard greenhouse only involves plants. And there’s a very simple exchange between oxygen and carbon dioxide. Additionally a standard greenhouse uses a fairly immutable level of separation between two points.

Meanwhile the earth has a wide variety of mammals, reptiles, plants, insects and machines to cope with. Each of which adds or removes from the overall balance in separation between earth and sun.

The Mutable Nature of Earth’s Atmosphere

But the biggest difference between a real greenhouse and the greenhouse effect involves the atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere consists of a vast number of different components. The exact composition is a bit too complex to go into. But the larger point to remember comes from overall complexity.

The atmosphere came about through long term exchange between living things and natural processes. Any large scale disruption there, especially in the short term, has huge consequences for the climate as a whole.

One can return to the earlier comparison and think about the glass or plastic of a greenhouse. Puncturing that material allows cold air in and disrupts the local environment. A similar thing happens with earth’s greenhouse effect.

The Issues around the Greenhouse Effect

Of course when people ask how does the greenhouse effect work they’re curious about more. One of the larger issues around the greenhouse effect is how humans impact it. Technically, the greenhouse effect isn’t a bad thing. But in common usage of the term, people usually refer to excessive extremes.

Just as making a hole in a greenhouse is bad so is interfering with Earth’s regulation. The incorrect levels of various gases like carbon dioxide increase temperatures. And this, in turn, has a negative impact on other areas.

the effects of global warming

Even the Ocean Faces Issues from the Greenhouse Effect

An example of the effects severity comes from water. The oceans are able to absorb some of the excess carbon dioxide. But in doing so, oceans become more acidic. This higher level of acidity damages aquatic mammals, fish and even coral reefs.

Estimates place overall carbon dioxide absorption by oceans at around 50% over 200 years. The process isn’t just about pH balance either. That process destroys carbonate, which otherwise would create calcium carbonate in sea life’s shells or skeletons.

ocean acidification illustration

Making a Positive Change

Thankfully there are things people can do which decrease the greenhouse effect. Most things thought of as green help the environment. For example, hybrid cars decrease emissions. That, in turn, reduces how much enters the atmosphere.

Reducing overall usage of most resources also helps. One needs to keep in mind that most store bought items need multiple shipping points. Each step of that creates negative effects on the environment.

One shouldn’t feel he or she needs to stop buying things of course. But the typical idea of reduce, reuse and recycle can really help the environment.

Along with that one can plant trees or even encourage friends to create gardens. Even voting for and enjoying public parks makes a big difference. Along with this, eating a diet with more vegetables and grains can influence growing more plants.

Really, the biggest thing one can do is simply keeping an eye out for opportunities to help. There’s always new opportunities to make environmentally friendly decisions.

Summing Up

In conclusion, one can draw a few things from this discussion. Asking how does the greenhouse effect work always leads into new tangents. It’s usually part of a larger discussion on environmental impact. Understanding how the greenhouse effect works means knowing how to explain it to others as well.

One should spread this newfound knowledge around. Doing so helps to make the world a better place. And it helps engage the community at large to make positive changes.

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