How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs

By Max. D Gray. Updated: March 24, 2022
How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs

While the greenhouse effect is a natural phenomenon by which planet earth sustains its life, some people think of it as being synonymous with climate change. While the two are interlinked, there are important differences. These differences help to explain how life on planet earth is being threatened as well as the steps needed to prevent environmental catastrophe. In this oneHOWTO article on how the greenhouse effect occurs, we look at the cause and effect of greenhouse gases. We will see how they are produced, how they affect global warming and investigate what to do to improve sustainability. In better understanding these processes we can help reduce the negative effects of greenhouse gases on the world.

What is the Greenhouse effect?

Before we start talking in depth on the subject it's important to be clear on what actually is the Greenhouse effect. It is an atmospheric phenomenon which occurs naturally. Greenhouse gases are gases which absorb and emit radiation in the atmosphere. They work as a barrier to prevent the sun from heating the earth to excess. The term "greenhouse effect" is helpful as we can think of how the glass in a greenhouse traps in heat, despite the fact it is clear.

It is, however, a little bit of a misnomer. This is because greenhouses maintain heat through a reduction in the flow of air more than necessarily exposure to the sun. The flow of heat from the sun, through the atmosphere and onto the earth is a delicate balance. The gases radiate thermal energy. Some of this is radiated back out earth's atmosphere, but much of it is radiated back to the earth which keeps it warm. Without the greenhouse effect, it is estimated that the average temperature of the earth would be 0 ºF/-18 ºC. Currently it is 59 ºF/15 ºC.

Types of greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons ). They work almost like a valve around the earth as they let in heat from the sun (known as solar radiation), but also stop some of it escaping. Water vapor (often in the form of clouds) is also considered a greenhouse gas. This system is in a somewhat delicate balance and is one of the reasons there is life on earth and not others in our solar system.

The amount of these gases in our atmosphere has changed over the millions of years of earth's existence. This could have been for many reasons, many we cannot know as there is no extant record. NASA even reports that slow natural variations have occurred over the millennia, resulting in ice ages at times (at least 5 major ones according to geologists). These greenhouse gases occur naturally and contribute to the sustainability of life on our planet. Without them, earth would be uninhabitable. They were first discussed in the 19th century by scientists, but their impact on earth's delicate ecosystem was not becoming properly known until the middle of the 20th century.

How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs - What is the Greenhouse effect?

Causes of the Greenhouse effect

To know how the greenhouse effect occurs it's important to know the causes of this phenomenon. We've already stated that this atmospheric situation must exist in order to get the optimal temperature for our planet. Otherwise it would be unable to host life. However, there are causes beyond the earth's natural greenhouse gas emissions which have complicated its ecosystem.

Next, we're going to specify the causes of the Greenhouse effect so you know what is causing this situation. We will start with the natural causes.

Natural causes

There are some gases that are emitted naturally on our planet and produce the Greenhouse effect. These types of emissions are the ones that have made it possible to live on our planet with a thermal environment that allows all the ecosystem to exist. These gases come from:

  • Volcanic activity
  • Evaporation of ocean and land water
  • Methane from animals
  • Carbon dioxide - from natural vegetation
  • Ozone layer
  • Nitrous oxide

These are causes in which man has not intervened and that contribute to keep our climate at optimum levels so that life on this planet can exist.

Plant life is a good example of how this ecosystem works in a balance. Plants take in carbon dioxide and convert it to oxygen. This means that excess greenhouse gases which are produced can be offset by plant life.

How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs - Causes of the Greenhouse effect

Artificial causes

The sources of greenhouse gases are part of a natural ecosystem which would exist without the coexistence of humans. If the production of greenhouse gases was limited to only these natural sources, then the future of planet earth would not be in question as it is today. Unfortunately the increase of human population, the advent of the industrial revolution and certain aspects of globalization have led to an unnatural increase in greenhouse gases.

A reliance on the burning of fossil fuels for energy and a continued neglect of renewable energy sources also have a bearing on the state of the environment. They both lead to increase in earth temperature which in turn can lead to a melting of the ice caps. The ice which is currently on land is in danger of (and has already been) melting. This would leads to an increase in global sea level which would flood many coastal regions across the world. Dakar, Miami, Cancun and Hong Kong are projected to be completely submerge if all land ice were to melt.

Now we can look at he causes of an increase in global temperature (known as global warming) and how this would effect the world's climate (climate change):

  • Fossil fuels: Coal, oil and petroleum (gasoline) are the main products used for automated technology. An over-reliance on fossil fuels has lead to massive spikes in global warming and a current crisis over how to maintain civilizations without burning as much of them.
  • Deforestation: increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Trees are cut down and can no longer photosynthesize CO2 causing an overabundance and extra thermal energy radiating down to the earth.
  • Agriculture: the cultivation of crops and animals as a source of food is necessary for human survival. The methods of production and distribution cause a lot of greenhouse gases and add to climate change.
  • Industrialization: this includes burning of fossil fuels, but for industrial purposes. Fossil fuels are a limited resource which take millions of years to be produced.
  • Electronic appliances: the appliances we have at home, cleaning products, hairspray, aerosols, among others, emit gases daily that produce this effect in the atmosphere, this is why it's important to disconnect all electronic equipment when not in use.
  • Demographic development: the fact that there are now more people on the planet also has a direct effect on the Greenhouse effect as the industry is required to produce more and there is therefore an increase in resource consumption. While population growth may be evening out, there has been drastic growth even in the last 10 years. The world's population increased by 1 billion between 1800 and 1927 (127 years). The same increase of 1 billion took only 12 years between 1999 and 2011.
  • Residue treatment: the trash and refuse we generate on a daily basis needs to be removed somehow. This is mostly burned or sent to a landfill, further increasing produciton of greenhouse gases. It is very important to recycle, to reduce emissions of these gases as much as possible.
How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs - Artificial causes

How to contribute to reducing the Greenhouse effecct

Now we know how the greenhouse effect occurs and how contributing greenhouse gases are produced, we know there are both natural and human causes. Humans only have the power to control the latter of these two. Donald Trump's recent pulling out of the Paris climate accord (a mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions) shows that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is in jeopardy. This means sustainable life on this planet is also in jeopardy.

While reduction of greenhouse gases needs to be carried out an an industrial, governmental and global scale, there are ways individuals can help reduce the effects of climate change:

Use public transport

Though it may seem restrictive, public transport allows a greater number of people to go from one place to the other on the one mode of transport. This reduces reliance on cars which is something many cities worldwide may benefit from. Individuals using a mode of transport which could have more people on it means losing opportunities to conserve energy. Hybrid and electric cars may help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but not using them at all when possible is ideal.

Reduce, reuse recycle

Reduce means to reduce the amount of waste we create, whether buying products with less packaging or going paperless where possible. Reuse is reusing material which would otherwise be destroyed and increase greenhouse gases. Recycle is to take previously used material and turn it back into that product, for example recycling paper to make more paper.

Using less heat and air conditioning

This means to not leave radiators on when it is cold or air con on when it is hot and thereby reduce combustion of non-renewable fuels.

Buying energy efficient products

We already mentioned hybrid cars which use less fossil fuels, but light bulbs and household electronic appliances have energy efficient versions which can reduce reliance on greenhouse gas emitting devices.

Use less hot water

Similar to turning off radiators, conserving energy spent on heating water unnecessarily needs to be encouraged.

Educate and activate

Learning about how the world's delicate ecosystem works will help understand why climate change needs to be offset. Even the device on which you read this article effects climate change as the minerals used to make it and the increased disposability/planned obsolescence of electronic products contributes to increase in greenhouse gases. Becoming politically active, petitioning government representatives and encouraging institutional changes in global emissions are very important if production of greenhouse gases is to be reduced.

How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs - How to contribute to reducing the Greenhouse effecct

Consequences of the greenhouse effect

The consequences of the Greenhouse effect can be grave if we don't start changing our day to day lifestyle and get an ecological conscience. This situation can result in fatal consequences for our planet. Within only a few generations, life as we know it on this planet may be drastically changed for the worse. Some of the consequences of this situation for the Earth are the following:

  • Extinction of animals and plants: the change in temperature of the planet makes many species extinct.
  • Rise in sea level: when compared to the past century, it is known that during the 21st century there has been between a 10 and 20% rise in the sea level. In the past 20 years, it's rising twice as fast each year.
  • Melting poles: the polar caps and glaciers melting contribute to the rise in sea level end therefore, there will be risk of flooding with time.
  • Extreme climatology phenomenons: typhoons, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc., have increased significantly in both frequency and intensity in the past years due to climate change.
  • Possible extinction of the human race: an inability to sustain life due to climate change and making the planet inhospitable.

This article is merely informative, oneHOWTO does not have the authority to prescribe any medical treatments or create a diagnosis. We invite you to visit your doctor if you have any type of condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to How the Greenhouse Effect Occurs, we recommend you visit our Healthy living category.

  • It is advisable to recycle as many products as possible with the intention of not generating harmful to human health substances.
  • We must help as much as possible so that the layer of the atmosphere is kept alive and save the Earth.

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