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Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse Gases


Greenhouse gases are trace gases in the atmosphere that absorb outgoing infrared radiation from Earth and thereby, like a greenhouse, warm the planet. Naturally occurring greenhouse gases (primarily water vapor and carbon dioxide) make the planet habitable for life as we know it. Anthropogenic greenhouse gases contribute to further warming, referred to as global warming.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is both a natural and anthropogenic greenhouse gas. Anthropogenic inputs of CO2 mainly from the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation continue to rise, making it the number-one contributor to global warming. Other anthropogenic greenhouse gases include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The last three compounds are synthetic greenhouse gases, which did not exist in the atmosphere before the twentieth century. Molecule for molecule, these gases trap more energy than CO2, but are less abundant in the atmosphere. One molecule of CH4, for example, traps as much heat as twenty-three molecules of CO2. SF6 traps as much heat as 22,200 molecules of CO2.

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol proposed legally binding restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, targeting a 5-percent reduction over 1990 levels by 2012. As of December 2001, 186 countries had ratified the protocol. The United States, however, is not one of them.

see also Carbon Dioxide; CFCs (Chlorofluorocarbons); Global Warming; Methane; MontrÉal Protocol; NOx; Treaties and Conferences.

Bibliography

turco, richard p. (1997). earth under siege: from air pollution to global change. new york: oxford university press.


internet resources

u.s. environmental protection agency. "global warming." available from http://www.epa.gov/globalwarming.

united nations framework convention on climate change. "greenhouse gas emissions." available from http://unfccc.int/resource.

Marin Sands Robinson

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greenhouse gas

greenhouse gas A gas composed of molecules that absorb and reradiate infrared electromagnetic radiation. When present in the atmosphere, therefore, the gas contributes to the greenhouse effect. On Earth, the principal greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and certain halocarbon compounds. See GLOBAL WARMING POTENTIAL.

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greenhouse gas

greenhouse gas A gas that absorbs long-wave radiation and therefore contributes to greenhouse-effect warming when present in the atmosphere. The principal greenhouse gases are water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, halocarbons, and ozone. See also global warming.

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greenhouse gas

green·house gas • n. a gas that contributes to the greenhouse effect by absorbing infrared radiation, e.g.. carbon dioxide and chlorofluorocarbons.

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Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse gases


Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that absorb and re-emit energy from the sun. They are believed to cause the global climatic changes known as the greenhouse effect .

The earth's climate depends on a wide variety of gases, vapors, and aerosols, and many of these contribute to global warming. Carbon dioxide is the most abundant; the atmosphere contains about 700 billion tons of this gas, and the oceans contain about 50 times this amount. Water vapor also contributes to global warming, and other important greenhouse gases include ozone , methane , nitrous oxide , and chlorofluorocarbons . Halogenated gases and a variety of volatile organic hydrocarbons are also important trace gases. Volatile compounds can absorb solar and infrared radiation directly; they can also affect the photochemistry of ozone, increasing the transmission of heat and thus indirectly affecting the climate. While not gases, small long-lived ambient particles, such as particulates, agricultural fields, wetlands , and oceans. Industrial emissions of greenhouses gases consist largely of carbon dioxide; these arise from burning fossil fuels such as coal , oil, and natural gas .

Increases in the concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere during this century have been attributed in part to rapid increases in the utilization of fossil fuels. Efforts to reduce greenhouse gases have focused on limiting and controlling the burning of these fuels. There have been programs to encourage the utilization of other sources of energy such as nuclear power , or alternative energy sources such as solar energy or hydropower. Technologies for controlling fossil fuel emissions and sequestering ambient carbon dioxide have also been developed, and researchers have emphasized the importance of improving energy efficiency and energy conservation .

See also Air pollution; Air pollution control; Flue gas; Pollution control

[Stuart Batterman and Douglas Smith ]


RESOURCES

PERIODICALS

Dickinson, R. E., R. J. Cicerone. "Future Global Warming from Atmospheric Trace Gases." Nature 319 (1986): 109115.

Hansen, J., A. Lacis, and M. Prather. "Greenhouse Effect of Chlorofluorocarbons and Other Trace Gases." Journal of Geophysical Research 94 (1989): 1641721.

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Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse Gases

Introduction

Certain gases in Earth's atmosphere—particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and water vapor—trap energy from solar radiation and thus, keep Earth warmer than it would be otherwise. These gases are termed greenhouse gases and the warming they create is termed the greenhouse effect or greenhouse warming. About 65% of greenhouse warming is caused by CO2, the most abundant greenhouse gas.

A certain amount of greenhouse warming occurs naturally; without it, Earth would be too cold to sustain most life. However, the intensity of the greenhouse effect is being increased by human activities that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. For example, burning fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) was adding over 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year as of 2006, with world usage of such fuels increasing rapidly. About half of the CO2 released each year remains in the atmosphere and intensifies Earth's natural greenhouse effect; the rest is absorbed by plants and the oceans. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is also increased by deforestation, because living trees absorb CO2 while burning and decaying wood emits it.

Because of anthropogenic (human-caused) intensification of Earth's greenhouse effect, the global climate is warming. This is causing secondary changes such as a rise in sea level, changed patterns of precipitation, shifted ranges for plant and animal populations, and more frequent extreme weather. Because the effects of global warming are various, scientists prefer the phrase global climate change, reserving the phrase global warming to refer to the average global temperature increase as such, apart from other changes.

Without the greenhouse effect, Earth's surface temperature would average about 0°F (–18°C), well below the freezing point of water. By slowing the rate at which Earth loses energy, the greenhouse effect helps maintain Earth's surface at an average temperature of about 59°F (15°C), allowing the oceans to be liquid and life to flourish.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The Greenhouse Effect

Greenhouses gases alter Earth's temperature by altering its energy budget. The energy budget of any system, such as Earth, is the sum of the energy entering the system, the energy leaving the system, and any difference between the two, which corresponds to energy that is internally transformed or stored. Almost all of the energy entering Earth's climate system comes from the sun, which, like all objects, emits electromagnetic energy at a rate and of a spectral character determined by its surface temperature, about 10,800°F (6,000°C). Because of this high temperature, about one-half of the sun's emitted energy is radiated as visible light, that is, light rays having wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers (nm). Most of the other half of the sun's energy output is radiated in the near-infrared wavelength range between about 700 and 2,000 nm.

There is a nearly even balance between the amount of electromagnetic energy coming to Earth and the amount eventually radiated back to space. The myriad ways in which the incoming energy is absorbed, dispersed, transformed, stored, and re-radiated make up the details of Earth's energy budget. At present, because Earth is warming, it is radiating slightly less energy than it is absorbing: the difference is going to heat the atmosphere, land, and (mostly) oceans.

Incoming solar radiation is termed insolation. On average, 35% of insolation is reflected to space by Earth's atmosphere (7%), surface (4%), and clouds (24%). About 18% of insolation is absorbed by atmospheric gases (16%) and clouds (2%); 47% of insolation is absorbed by Earth's surface. Upon absorption by matter, light's energy is usually transformed into heat, that is, random molecular

motion. Land, sea, and atmosphere re-radiate most of this energy as longer-wavelength infrared radiation; a small fraction drives winds, currents, and chemical processes. Some re-radiated infrared energy escapes to space, but some is re-absorbed by the planet's surface or atmosphere. Re-absorption in the atmosphere is accomplished by greenhouse gases and is the basis of the greenhouse effect.

The term “greenhouse effect” is used because this mechanism is analogous to a glass-enclosed greenhouse heated by sunlight. A greenhouse's glass panels are transparent to insolation, but they prevent warm interior air from rising and mixing with the outside air, slowing heat loss and causing the structure to achieve equilibrium or balance with its environment at a higher temperature than it would otherwise. Similarly, when greenhouse gas concentrations in Earth's atmosphere are increased, Earth warms until it achieves a new, warmer equilibrium with its environment. As greenhouse gases are being continually added to the atmosphere, however, Earth cannot achieve thermal (heat) equilibrium, but continues to warm as long as the gases are added. If at some point greenhouse-gas concentrations were to level off, Earth would eventually, at some point, cease to get warmer.

Major Greenhouse Gases

Water vapor and CO2 are the most important greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere; CO2 also has important greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus. Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and chlorofluorocarbons and related compounds (used mostly as refrigerants) play a significant role. On a per-molecule basis, most of these gases cause more warming than CO2, but they cause less warming overall because their atmospheric concentrations are much lower. Compared with carbon dioxide, a molecule of methane is 21–40 times more effective at absorbing infrared wavelengths, nitrous oxide is 200–270 times more effective, ozone 2,000 times, and CFCs and related compounds 3,000–15,000 times more effective.

Other than water vapor, the atmospheric concentrations of all of these gases have increased in the past century because of emissions associated with human activities. Prior to 1850, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm), while in 1994 it was 355 ppm, and by 2006 it had risen to 379 ppm. During the same period, CH4 increased from 0.7 ppm to 1.7 ppm, N2O from 0.285 ppm to over .3 ppm; and CFCs from zero to 0.7 ppb. These increased concentrations of greenhouse gases have been the main cause of the observed warming of Earth's climate in recent years. CO2 causes about 60% of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect, CH415%, N2O 5%, O38%, and CFCs 12%. Water vapor is a special case because it does not remain in the atmosphere very long; its atmospheric concentration is controlled by the warming effect of longer-lived greenhouse gases, and so it is termed a feedback (as opposed to a forcing) factor in global warming.

Other Processes Powered by Insolation

Not all energy from absorbed light, whether visible or infrared, is re-radiated at once as infrared light. Energy can also be transformed or stored by various physical processes. A few that are important to climate are as follows:

  • Some thermal energy causes water to evaporate from plant and water surfaces or melts ice and snow. Evaporation causes local climatic cooling; condensation of water vapor into snow or rain releases heat. Both of these effects are important to regional climate and weather.
  • A small amount (less than 1%) of the absorbed solar radiation generates mass-transport processes in the oceans and lower atmosphere, which disperse some of Earth's unevenly distributed thermal energy. The most important of these processes are winds and storms, ocean currents, and waves on the surface of the oceans and lakes.
  • A small but ecologically critical quantity of solar energy (averaging less than 1% of the total) is absorbed by plant pigments, especially chlorophyll. This energy is used to drive photosynthesis, resulting in temporary storage of energy in the chemical bonds of biological compounds. Notably, plants use energy from sunlight to separate the carbon and oxygen in CO2, keeping the carbon to build their tissues and releasing the oxygen.

Scientific Disputes and Progress

Globally, all of the warmest years since instrumental measurements of surface temperature began to be recorded (around 1880) have occurred since the late 1980s. Typically, these warm years have averaged about 1.5–2.0°F (0.8–1.0°C) warmer than those during the decade of the 1880s. As of 2007, the average temperature of Earth's atmosphere near the surface had risen about 1.33°F (0.74°C) since 1906. This warming closely matches increases in greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

When human activity was first cited as the cause of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the late 1950s and 1960s and global warming was attributed to increasing concentrations, some scientists questioned these conclusions. They based their skepticism on several apparent deficiencies in the argument. These included: 1) air temperature is variable in time and space, making measurements from many locations over long time periods necessary to detect long-term trends; 2) older data are less accurate than modern instrumental records; 3) many

weather stations are in urban areas that are warmed by increasing quantities of buildings and pavement; and 4) climate can change for reasons other than increased greenhouse gases, including cyclical changes in solar radiation and volcanic emissions. When satellite data became available in the late 1970s, there were apparent inconsistencies between ground-level instrumental data and satellite observations.

However, by the early 2000s, all these causes of skepticism had been resolved to the satisfaction of the great majority of scientists. For example, atmospheric CO2 and surface temperature had been linked by many independent bodies of proxy data, that is, natural biological or geological records such as tree rings, snow layers, and ocean-floor sediment layers that preserve information about ancient climate. An important form of proxy evidence for ancient temperature changes—and of direct evidence for ancient CO2 concentrations—are ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland. These cylinders of ice, retrieved by drills from deep inside Earth's two major ice caps, preserve bubbles of ancient air which reveal ancient CO2 concentrations and, by their ratios of oxygen isotopes, air temperatures at the time the snow that compacted to form the ice fell. Observed changes in CO2 and surface temperature are matched, each increasing when the other increases, suggesting that either increased CO2 causes warming, or warming causes increased CO2, or both.

A 2005 ice-core study by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide was already 27% higher than the highest CO2 level found during the last 650,000 years. All data confirmed a step-wise correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the warming of the global climate. Geological data show that atmospheric CO2 was much higher at much more remote times, on the order of hundreds of millions of years ago, when Earth's climate was radically different than today's.

The other main scientific grounds for doubting the reality of anthropogenic climate change have also dissolved. The urban heat island effect has been taken into careful account in analyzing temperature records; more careful analysis of astronomical influences on climate shows that increased energy output from the sun is not causing today's warming; analytic errors that had created apparent disagreement between satellite and surface data have been discovered and fixed. Satellite data, improved surface data, proxy data, and computer models have all converged to support the conclusion the world is indeed warming as greenhouse gas concentrations increase. Since we know that human culture, not warming climate, has caused the expansion of fossil-fuel burning since 1750, on this occasion it is definitely increased greenhouse-gas concentrations that have caused global warming, not the other way around. Modern climate warming may, however, cause accelerated releases of some greenhouse gases, such as methane, enhancing warming still further.

Computer models are used to analyze the many complex factors that affect climate change. The most sophisticated simulations are three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs), which are run on supercomputers. GCM models simulate the complex interactions of clouds, ocean currents, atmospheric circulations, seasons, biological processes, greenhouse gas emissions, and atmospheric chemistry to create a mathematical picture or model of how Earth's climate works.

WORDS TO KNOW

1750 VALUE: Concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are often compared to their values in 1750. That year is just before the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when burning of fossil fuels began to greatly increase, changing atmospheric gas concentrations. The number 1750 is arbitrary: any earlier year in the last several thousand years would do just as well, since greenhouse gas concentrations were stable during that period.

CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS: Members of the larger group of compounds termed halocarbons. All halocarbons contain carbon and halons (chlorine, fluorine, or bromine). When released into the atmosphere, CFCs and other halocarbons deplete the ozone layer and have high global warming potential.

DEFORESTATION: Those practices or processes that result in the change of forested lands to non-forest uses. This is often cited as one of the major causes of the enhanced greenhouse effect for two reasons: 1) the burning or decomposition of the wood releases carbon dioxide; and 2) trees that once removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process of photosynthesis are no longer present and contributing to carbon storage.

ELECTROMAGNETIC ENERGY: Energy conveyed by electromagnetic waves, which are paired electric and magnetic fields propagating together through space. X rays, visible light, and radio waves are all electromagnetic waves.

FOSSIL FUELS: Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.

INSOLATION: Solar radiation incident upon a unit horizontal surface on or above Earth's surface.

METHANE: A compound of one hydrogen atom combined with four hydrogen atoms, formula CH4. It is the simplest hydrocarbon compound. Methane is a burnable gas that is found as a fossil fuel (in natural gas) and is given off by rotting excrement.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: The process by which green plants use light to synthesize organic compounds from carbon dioxide and water. In the process, oxygen and water are released. Increased levels of carbon dioxide can increase net photosynthesis in some plants. Plants create a very important reservoir for carbon dioxide.

SPECTRAL: Relating to a spectrum, which is an ordered range of possible vibrational frequencies for a type of wave. The spectrum of visible light, for example, orders colors from red (slowest vibrations visible) to violet (fastest vibrations visible) and is itself a small segment of the much larger electromagnetic spectrum.

URBAN HEAT ISLAND EFFECT: Warming of atmosphere in and immediately around a built-up area. Occurs because pavement and buildings absorb solar energy while being little cooled by evaporation compared to vegetation-covered ground. Skeptics of global climate change at one time argued that the expansion of urban heat islands near and around weather stations has caused an illusion of global warming by biasing temperature measurements. Although urban heat islands do exist, the argument that they produce an illusion of global warming has been discredited.

WATER VAPOR: The most abundant greenhouse gas, it is the water present in the atmosphere in gaseous form. Water vapor is an important part of the natural greenhouse effect. Although humans are not significantly increasing its concentration, it contributes to the enhanced greenhouse effect because the warming influence of greenhouse gases leads to a positive water vapor feedback. In addition to its role as a natural greenhouse gas, water vapor plays an important role in regulating the temperature of the planet because clouds form when excess water vapor in the atmosphere condenses to form ice and water droplets and precipitation.

In 2007, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its Fourth Assessment Report on anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and climate change. The IPCC found that, despite ratification by most of the world's nations of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for reductions in greenhouse emissions, most nations' emissions were increasing. In 2005, CH4 abundance was up to 1,774 parts per billion, more than twice its 1750 value; N2O abundance was at 319 parts per billion, 18% higher than its 1750 value.

The IPCC's 2007 report on climate change also presented revised predictions for how much the global climate might warm if emissions of greenhouse gases continue. Depending on whether human societies reduce their emissions or continue with business as usual, by 2100 world climate is likely to warm by several degrees, with a minimum of 1.98°F (1.1°C) and a maximum, barring unforeseen feedbacks or tipping points, of 11.52°F (6.4°C).

Under the auspices of the United Nations, various international negotiations have been undertaken to try to get nations to agree to decisive actions to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases, beginning with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992). A major modification to that treaty came out of a meeting held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Most industrialized countries (with the notable exceptions of the United States and Australia) agreed to reduce their CO2 by 5–7% or more below their 1990 levels by the year 2012. Australia announced plans to ratify in late 2007. Kyoto was a first step, and its shortcomings have been much debated; discussions to design a follow-up treaty to take effect after Kyoto's expiration began in late 2007.

Keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is the most reliable, least hazardous way to mitigate global warming. Researchers are also testing ways to sequester, or store, carbon dioxide emitted by large centralized sources such as power plants, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. Some scientists are considering geoengineering efforts to deflect sunlight from Earth or otherwise alter the planet's energy budget. Replanting tropical forests and decreasing their destruction, adjusting agriculture practices, generating energy from affordable, rapidly deployable low-carbon sources, ceasing to manufacture CFCs and related compounds, and other measures can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and eventually stabilize Earth's climate in a less-altered state than will occur if emissions continue to grow.

In 2007, UN experts announced that the most cost-effective measure of all—the most greenhouse-gas abatement achieved per dollar spent—was increased energy efficiency. Much, probably most of the energy consumed by modern industrial society is wasted, and most energy is generated by methods that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere; decreasing usage of energy and materials reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigates global climate change.

IN CONTEXT: POST-INDUSTRIAL RISE IN GREENHOUSE GASES

The IPCC asserts that “The post-industrial rise in greenhouse gases is ‘unprecedented’ and does not stem from natural mechanisms.”

“Current concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and CH4 far exceed pre-industrial values found in polar ice core records of atmospheric composition dating back 650,000 years. Multiple lines of evidence confirm that the post-industrial rise in these gases does not stem from natural mechanisms….”

“The total radiative forcing of the Earth's climate due to increases in the concentrations of the LLGHGs [Long-lived greenhouse gases] CO2, CH4 and N2O, and very likely the rate of increase in the total forcing due to these gases over the period since 1750, are unprecedented in more than 10,000 years.”

IPCC scientists further assert that it is “very likely” that the rate of increase “over the past four decades is at least six times faster than at any time during the two millennia before the Industrial Era….”

Note: Emphasis shown above exists in the original published text.

SOURCE:Solomon, S., et al., eds. In Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2007.

Greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere commit the world to a certain amount of future climate change regardless of how successful society may be at reducing emissions. Even given sudden stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentrations, it would still take centuries for the Earth's atmosphere to get into thermal equilibrium with the waters of the deep oceans, and during this period, climate would continue to change, albeit more slowly than today. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions cannot halt global climate change, but would slow it and reduce its future extent.

See Also Global Warming; Greenhouse Effect.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2006.

Morganstein, Stanley. The Greenhouse Effect. Cheshire, UK: Trafford, 2003.

Solomon, S., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Wuebbles, Donald J., and Jae Edmonds. Primer on Greenhouse Gases. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 1991.

Periodicals

Karl, Thomas R., and Kevin E. Trenberth. “Modern Global Climate Change.” Science 302 (2003): 1,719–1,723.

Web Sites

“Climate Change.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), November 19, 2007. < www.epa.gov/climatechange/> (accessed November 25, 2007).

“Greenhouse Gases: Frequently Asked Questions.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). < http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/gases.html> (accessed November 21, 2007).

Larry Gilman

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Greenhouse Gases

Greenhouse Gases

Introduction

Certain gases in Earth’s atmosphere—particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and water vapor (H2)—trap energy from solar radiation and so keep Earth warmer than it would be otherwise. These gases are termed greenhouse gases, and the warming they create is termed the greenhouse effect or greenhouse warming. About 65% of greenhouse warming is caused by CO2, the most abundant greenhouse gas.

A certain amount of greenhouse warming occurs naturally; without it, Earth would be too cold to sustain most life. However, the intensity of the greenhouse effect is being increased by human activities that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. For example, as of 2006 the burning of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, and natural gas) was adding over 6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, with world usage of such fuels increasing rapidly. About half of the CO2 released each year remains in the atmosphere and intensifies Earth’s natural greenhouse effect; the rest is absorbed by plants and the oceans. The atmospheric concentration of CO2 is also increased by deforestation, because living trees absorb CO2 while burning or decaying wood emits it.

Because of anthropogenic (human-caused) intensification of Earth’s greenhouse effect, the global climate is warming. This is causing secondary changes such as a rise in sea level, changed patterns of precipitation, shifted ranges for plant and animal populations, and more frequent extreme weather. Because the effects of global warming are various, scientists prefer the phrase global climate change, reserving the phrase global warming to refer to the average global temperature increase as such, apart from other changes.

Without the greenhouse effect, Earth’s surface temperature would average about 0°F (–18°C), well below the freezing point of water. By slowing the rate at which Earth loses energy, the greenhouse effect helps maintain Earth’s surface at an average temperature of about 59°F (15°C), allowing the oceans to be liquid and life to flourish.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The Greenhouse Effect

Greenhouses gases alter Earth’s temperature by altering its energy balance. Almost all energy entering Earth’s climate system comes from the sun, which, like all objects, emits electromagnetic energy at a rate and of a spectral character determined by its surface temperature, about 10,800°F (6,000°C). Because of this high temperature, about one-half of the sun’s emitted energy is radiated as visible light, that is, light rays having wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers (nm). Most of the other half of the sun’s energy output is radiated in the near-infrared wavelength ranges between about 700 and 2,000 nm.

There is a nearly even balance between the amount of electromagnetic energy coming to Earth and the amount eventually radiated back to space. The many ways in which the incoming energy is absorbed, dispersed, transformed, stored, and re-radiated make up the details of Earth’s energy budget. At present, because Earth is warming, it is radiating slightly less energy than it is absorbing: The difference is going to heat the atmosphere, land, and (mostly) oceans.

Incoming solar radiation is termed insolation. On average, 35% of insolation is reflected to space by Earth’s atmosphere (7%), surface (4%), and clouds (24%). About 18% of insolation is absorbed by atmospheric gases (16%) and clouds (2%); 47% of insolation is absorbed by Earth’s surface. Upon absorption by matter, light’s energy is usually transformed into heat, that is, random molecular motion. Land, sea, and atmosphere re-radiate most of this energy as longer-wavelength infrared radiation; a small fraction drives winds, currents, and chemical processes. Some re-radiated infrared energy escapes to space, but some is re-absorbed by the planet’s surface or atmosphere. Re-absorption in the atmosphere is accomplished by greenhouse gases and is the basis of the greenhouse effect.

The term “greenhouse effect” is used because this mechanism is analogous to a glass-enclosed greenhouse heated by sunlight. A greenhouse’s glass panels are transparent to insolation, but they prevent warm interior air from rising and mixing with the outside air, slowing heat loss and causing the structure to achieve equilibrium or balance with its environment at a higher temperature than it would otherwise. Similarly, when greenhouse gas concentrations in Earth’s atmosphere are increased, Earth warms until it achieves a new, warmer equilibrium with its environment. As greenhouse gases are being continually added to the atmosphere, however, Earth cannot achieve thermal (heat) equilibrium, but continues to warm as long as the gases are added. If at some point greenhouse-gas concentrations were to level off, Earth would eventually, at some point, cease to get warmer.

Major Greenhouse Gases

Water vapor and CO2 are the most important greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere; CO2 also has important greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus. Methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), ozone (O3), and chlorofluorocarbons and related compounds (used mostly as refrigerants) play a significant role. On a per-molecule basis, most of these gases cause more warming thanCO2, but they cause less warming overall because their atmospheric concentrations are much lower. Compared with carbon dioxide, a molecule of methane is 21 to 40 times more effective at absorbing infrared wavelengths, nitrous oxide is 200 to 270 times more effective, ozone 2,000 times, and CFCs and related compounds 3,000 to 15,000 times more effective.

Other than water vapor, the atmospheric concentrations of all of these gases have increased in the past century because of emissions associated with human activities. Prior to 1850, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm), while in 1994 it was 355 ppm, and by 2006 it had risen to 379 ppm. During the same period, CH4 increased from 0.7 ppm to 1.7 ppm, N2O from 0.285 ppm to over 0.3 ppm; and CFCs from zero to 0.7 parts per billion (ppb). These increased concentrations of greenhouse gases have been the main cause of the observed warmingof Earth’ s climate in recent years. CO2 causes about 60% of the anthropogenic greenhouse effect, CH4 15%, N2O 5%, O3 8%, and CFCs 12%. Water vapor is a special case because it does not remain in the atmosphere very long;its atmospheric concentration is controlled by the warm-

WORDS TO KNOW

1750 VALUE: Refers to pre-industrial greenhouse gas levels. The 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) determined that greenhouse gas concentrations prior to 1750 were uninfluenced by human activity.

ELECTROMAGNETIC ENERGY: Energy conveyed by electromagnetic waves, which are paired electric and magnetic fields propagating together through space. X rays, visible light, and radio waves are all electromagnetic waves.

INSOLATION: Solar radiation received at Earth’s surface.

PHOTOSYNTHESIS: The process by which plants fix carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using the energy of sunlight.

SPECTRAL: Relating to a spectrum, which is an ordered range of possible vibrational frequencies for a type of wave. The spectrum of visible light, for example, orders colors from red (slowest vibrations visible) to violet (fastest vibrations visible) and is itself a small segment of the much larger electromagnetic spectrum.

URBAN HEAT ISLAND EFFECT: Warming of atmosphere in and immediately around a built-up area. Occurs because pavement and buildings absorb solar energy while being little cooled by evaporation compared to vegetation-covered ground.

ing effect of longer-lived greenhouse gases, and so it is termed a feedback (as opposed to a forcing) factor in global warming.

Other Processes Powered by Insolation

Not all energy from absorbed light, whether visible or infrared, is re-radiated at once as infrared light. Energy can also be transformed or stored by various physical processes, including:

  • Some thermal energy causes water to evaporate from plant and water surfaces or melts ice and snow. Evaporation causes local climatic cooling; condensation of water vapor into snow or rain releases heat. Both of these effects are important to regional climate and weather.
  • A small amount (less than 1%) of the absorbed solar radiation generates mass-transport processes in the oceans and lower atmosphere, which disperse some of Earth’s unevenly distributed thermal energy. The most important of these processes are winds and storms, ocean currents, and waves on the surface of the oceans and lakes.
  • A small but ecologically critical quantity of solar energy (averaging less than 1% of the total) is

absorbed by plant pigments, especially chlorophyll. This energy is used to drive photosynthesis, resulting in temporary storage of energy in the chemical bonds of biological compounds. Notably, plants use energy from sunlight to separate the carbon and oxygen in CO2, keeping the carbon to build their tissues and releasing the oxygen.

Scientific Disputes and Progress

Globally, all of the warmest years since instrumental measurements of surface temperature began to be recorded in the 1800s have occurred since the late 1980s. Typically, these warm years have averaged about 1.5 to 2.0°F (0.8 to 1.0°C) warmer than those during the decade of the 1880s. As of 2007, the average temperature of Earth’s atmosphere near the surface had risen about 1.33°F (0.74°C) since 1906. This warming closely matches increases in greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

When human activity was first cited as the cause of increasing greenhouse-gas concentrations in the late 1950s and 1960s and global warming was attributed to increasing concentrations, some scientists questioned these conclusions. They based their skepticism on several apparent deficiencies in the argument. These included: 1) air temperature is variable in time and space, making measurements from many locations over long time periods necessary to detect long-term trends; 2) older data are less accurate than modern instrumental records; 3) many weather stations are in urban areas that are warmed by increasing quantities of buildings and pavement; and 4) climate can change for reasons other than increased greenhouse gases, including cyclical changes in solar radiation and volcanic emissions. When satellite data became available in the late 1970s, there were apparent inconsistencies between ground-level instrumental data and satellite observations.

However, by the early 2000s, all of these causes of skepticism had been resolved to the satisfaction of the great majority of scientists. For example, atmospheric CO2 and surface temperature had been linked by many independent bodies of proxy data, that is, natural biological or geological records such as tree rings, snow layers, and ocean-floor sediment layers that preserve information about ancient climate. An important form of proxy evidence for ancient temperature changes—and of direct evidence for ancient CO2 concentrations—are ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland. These cylinders of ice, retrieved by drills from deep inside Earth’s two major ice caps, preserve bubbles of ancient air which reveal ancient CO2 concentrations and, by their ratios of oxygen isotopes, air temperatures at the time the snow that compacted to form the ice fell. Observed changes in CO2 and surface temperature are matched, each increasing when the other increases, suggesting that either increased CO2 causes warming, or warming causes increased CO2, or both.

A 2005 ice-core study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide was already 27% higher than the highest CO2 level found during the last 650,000 years. All data confirmed a step-wise correlation between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the warming of the global climate. Geological data show that atmospheric CO2 was much higher at much more remote times, on the order of hundreds of millions of years ago, when Earth’s climate was radically different than today’s.

The other main scientific grounds for doubting the reality of anthropogenic climate change have also dissolved. The urban heat island effect has been taken into careful account in analyzing temperature records; more careful analysis of astronomical influences on climate shows that increased energy output from the sun is not causing today’s warming; analytic errors that had created apparent disagreement between satellite and surface data have been discovered and fixed. Satellite data, improved surface data, proxy data, and computer models have all converged to support the conclusion that the world is indeed warming as greenhouse-gas concentrations increase. Since we know that human culture, not warming climate, has caused the expansion of fossil-fuel burning since 1750, on this occasion it is definitely increased greenhouse-gas concentrations that have caused global warming, not the other way around. Modern climate warming may, however, cause accelerated releases of some greenhouse gases, such as methane, enhancing warming still further.

Impacts and Issues

Computer models are used to analyze the many complex factors that affect climate change. The most sophisticated simulations are three-dimensional general circulation models (GCMs), which are run on supercomputers. GCM models simulate the complex interactions of clouds, ocean currents, atmospheric circulations, seasons, biological processes, greenhouse-gas emissions, and atmospheric chemistry to create a mathematical picture or model of how Earth’s climate works.

In 2007, the United NationsIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its fourth Assessment Report on anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and climate change. The IPCC found that, despite ratification by most of the world’s nations of the Kyoto Protocol, which calls for reductions in greenhouse emissions, most nations’ emissions were increasing. In 2005, CH4 abundance was up to 1,774 ppb, more than twice its 1750 value; N2O abundance was at 319 ppb, 18% higher than its 1750 value.

The IPCC’s 2007 report on climate change also presented revised predictions for how much the global climate might warm if emissions of greenhouse gases continue. Depending on whether human societies reduce their emissions or continue with business as usual, by 2100 world climate is likely to warm by several degrees, with a minimum of 1.98°F (1.1°C) and a maximum, barring unforeseen feedbacks or tipping points, of 11.52°F (6.4°C).

Under the auspices of the United Nations, various international negotiations have been undertaken to try to get nations to agree to decisive actions to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases, beginning with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. A major modification to that treaty came out of a meeting held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997. Most industrialized countries (with the notable exceptions of the United States and Australia) agreed to reduce their CO2 by 5-7% or more below their 1990 levels by the year 2012. Kyoto was a first step, and its shortcomings have been much debated; discussions to design a follow-up treaty to take effect after Kyoto’s expiration began in late 2007.

Keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere is the most reliable, least hazardous way to mitigate global warming. Researchers are also testing ways to sequester, or store, carbon dioxide emitted by large centralized sources such as power plants, preventing it from entering the atmosphere. Some scientists are considering geo-engineering efforts to deflect sunlight from Earth or otherwise alter the planet’s energy budget. Replanting tropical forests and decreasing their destruction, adjusting agriculture practices, generating energy from affordable, rapidly deployable low-carbon sources, ceasing to manufacture CFCs and related compounds, and other measures can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and eventually stabilize Earth’s climate in a less-altered state than will occur if emissions continue to grow.

In 2007, UN experts announced that the most cost-effective measure of all—the most greenhouse-gas abatement achieved per dollar spent—was increased energy efficiency. Much, probably most of the energy consumed by modern industrial society is wasted, and most energy is generated by methods that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere; decreasing usage of energy and materials reduces greenhouse-gas emissions and mitigates global climate change.

Greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere commit the world to a certain amount of future climate change regardless of how successful society may be at reducing emissions. Even given sudden stabilization of greenhouse-gas concentrations, it would still take centuries for Earth’s atmosphere to get into thermal equilibrium with the waters of the deep oceans, and during this period, climate would continue to change, albeit more slowly than today. Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions cannot halt global climate change, but would slow it and reduce its future extent.

IN CONTEXT: CLIMATE CHANGE MITIGATION

“Changes in lifestyle and behaviour patterns cancontribute to climate change mitigation across all sectors. Management practices can also have a positive role….”

“Lifestyle changes can reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions. Changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns that emphasize resource conservation can contribute to developing a low-carbon economy that is both equitable and sustainable.”

SOURCE: Metz, B. (eds.) “IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers.” In: Climate Change 2007: Mitigation. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Primary Source Connection

The following news article reports on the possibility of capturing carbon dioxide (CO2, indicated in the article as CO2) at factories and plants, and pumping it undergground in order to capture oil from declining oil fields. Though the process of using natural CO2 is already being accomplished, it has not yet made a significant dent in the oil production industry, although the idea is gaining popularity from both environmentalists and oil producers. However, some skeptics point out that the process does not promote the use of renewable energy, and assume that the amount of CO2 that would need to be captured and buried is unrealistic compared to the demands that need to be met.

CLIMATE-CHANGE PARADOX: GREENHOUSE GAS IS BIG OIL BOON

Gazing across a rejuvenated old West Texas oil field, Larry Adams sings the praises of carbon dioxide.

That might seem odd. The gas is linked to global warming, which has prompted calls from governments and environmentalists alike to reduce oil use. But here at the SACROC field in America’s fading oil belt, CO2 is providing the boost the industry needs.

By pumping the greenhouse gas deep underground, oil companies are squeezing out more oil and providing new life to fields that have been declining for decades. But if the companies can capture the carbon dioxide that other industries produce, then the greenhouse gas may become cheap and plentiful enough to be a boon to Big Oil.

“This process of using CO2 for enhanced oil recovery is just a niche today, but if other man-made sources became available, it could become a boom,” says Mr. Adams, CO2 engineering manager for Kinder Morgan, the nation’s largest transporter of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery or EOR.

The Houston-based company mines most of its CO2 from natural deposits in Colorado. It pipes the gas to West Texas oil fields where it is injected a mile beneath the surface. Despite steady growth in EOR production since 2000, it accounts for only about 5 percent of US production—some 240,000 barrels a day.

Now, Kinder Morgan and a few other companies envision greatly expanding that amount—if they can transport CO2 emissions that would be captured by power plants, cement factories, and other industrial facilities.

Capturing carbon dioxide at plants and factories—rather than spewing it into the atmosphere—is one of the few near-term solutions to global warming that’s receiving serious consideration. Under this scenario, companies would bury the greenhouse gases they produce in deep saline aquifers—a process called sequestration.

Some environmentalists say EOR could speed the move to sequestration.

“We see EOR as a great ally for carbon sequestration,” says A. Scott Anderson, energy policy adviser for Environmental Defense, a New York-based environmental group.

With the natural CO2 available for EOR in short supply, a few companies are scrambling to begin collecting some of the 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide that the US emits each year. If enough of this man-made gas were made available, it could quadruple America’s recoverable oil reserves to an estimated 89 billion barrels, the US Energy Department reported last year.

Among the projects under way or under consideration:

  • Blue Source, LLC, a company that helps businesses slash their carbon emissions, announced a deal last month to capture CO2 emissions from a Kansas fertilizer plant and inject it into an aging oil field nearby.
  • Representatives of Basin Electric Power Cooperative in North Dakota told a US congressional commission in July that it is planning to capture CO2 from its Antelope Valley power station and sell it for EOR in the Williston Basin oil field. The field holds nearly 13 billion barrels of oil. But without CO2 injections, some 9 billion barrels would never be recovered.
  • In June, Denbury Resources, a Plano, Texas, company that specializes in using CO2 to revive aging oil fields on the Gulf Coast, announced that it would buy all the CO2 emissions of a new coal-to-liquid fuel plant being built in Natchez, Miss.

Supporters of expanding EOR say it could provide a down payment on the huge cost of sequestration by helping to pay for the pipelines and other infrastructure needed to collect and pipe CO2 around the country.

“If people working on projects for CO2 capture, can connect with people in the oil field—and in many cases they are close to doing that—the oil industry could end up financing the capture and transport of CO2,” Mr. Anderson says.

Others, however, are skeptical.

For one thing, the infrastructure is a major undertaking. To provide enough carbon dioxide to meet EOR demands, the oil industry would have to capture and pipe as much CO2 (in liquid form) in a day as Americans consume in oil in a 24-hour period.

For another, the plan does little to discourage the use of fossil fuels.

“If you use CO2 to squeeze oil out of the ground, and then you burn that oil, it releases at least as much CO2 as was pumped into the ground,” says Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “You’re not really helping the planet any.”

Even so, companies are moving ahead. Last year, Denbury announced plans to buy CO2 from a planned fertilizer plant to be built in Donaldsonville, La. It has been buying up old oil fields south of Houston and plans a CO2 pipeline that could transport both natural CO2 in its own reserves and from power plants and other CO2 sources.By pumping the CO2 underground,” we not only help to protect the environment by reducing greenhouse gases, but also produce additional oil to help reduce our nation’s need for imported oil,” said Gareth Roberts, Denbury’s chief executive officer, in a June statement.

Mark Clayton

CLAYTON, MARK. “CLIMATE-CHANGE PARADOX: GREENHOUSE GAS IS BIG OIL BOON.” CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR (SEPTEMBER 11, 2007).

See Also Carbon Dioxide (CO2); Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Emissions; Global Warming; Greenhouse Effect; Kyoto Protocol

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Gore, Al. An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2006.

Morganstein, Stanley. The Greenhouse Effect. Cheshire, UK: Trafford, 2003.

Solomon, S., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Wuebbles, Donald J., and Jae Edmonds. Primer on Greenhouse Gases. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 1991.

Periodicals

Karl, Thomas R., and Kevin E. Trenberth. “Modern Global Climate Change.” Science 302 (2003): 1719–1723.

Web Sites

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “Greenhouse Gases: Frequently Asked Questions.” December 1, 2005. http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/gases.html (accessed March 21, 2008).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Climate Change.” November 19, 2007. http://www.epa.gov/climatechange (accessed March 21, 2008).

Larry Gilman

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