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Greenhouse effect


A schematic representation of the exchanges of energy between outer space, the Earth's
atmosphere, and the Earth surface. The ability of the atmosphere to capture and recycle
energy emitted by the Earth surface is the defining characteristic of the greenhouse effect.
The greenhouse effect, first discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824, and first investigated
quantitatively by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, is the radiative forcing process by which an
atmosphere warms a planet. The name is from the similar effect which greenhouses
utilize in order to facilitate plant growth.
Mars, Venus and other celestial bodies with atmospheres (such as Titan) have greenhouse
effects, but for simplicity this article mostly refers to the case of Earth.
In common parlance, the term greenhouse effect may be used to refer either to the natural
greenhouse effect, which is the greenhouse effect which occurs naturally on Earth, or to
the enhanced (anthropogenic) greenhouse effect, which results from gases emitted as a
result of human activities (see also global warming). No-one disputes the former, or its
magnitude; the latter is accepted by a large majority of scientists, although there is some
dispute as to its magnitude (see scientific opinion on climate change and attribution of
recent climate change).

The natural greenhouse effect

The earth receives an enormous amount of solar radiation. Just above the atmosphere, the
direct solar radiation flux averages about 1366 watts per square meter, or 1.7401017 W
after being distributed over the entire Earth. This figure greatly exceeds the power
generated by human activities. The difference between the natural greenhouse effect and
global warming is that global warming is anthropogenic whereas greenhouse effect is not.

The solar power hitting Earth is balanced over time by an equal amount of power
radiating from the Earth (as the amount of energy from the Sun that is stored is small).
Almost all radiation leaving the Earth takes two forms: reflected solar radiation and
thermal black body radiation.

Solar radiation at top of atmosphere and at Earth's surface.

Reflected solar radiation accounts for 30% of the Earth's total radiation: on average, 6%
of the incoming solar radiation is reflected by the atmosphere, 20% is reflected by clouds,
and 4% is reflected by the surface.
The remaining 70% of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed: 16% by the atmosphere
(including the almost complete absorption of shortwave ultraviolet over most areas by the
stratospheric ozone layer); 3% by clouds; and 51% by the land and oceans. This absorbed
energy heats the atmosphere, oceans, and land and powers life on the planet. It should be
noted that the surface of the Earth is in constant flux with daily, yearly and age long
cycles and trends in temperature and other variables for a variety of causes; thus these
percentages apply on average only.
Like the Sun, the Earth is a thermal radiator. Because the Earth's surface is much cooler
than the Sun (287 K vs 5780 K), Wien's displacement law dictates that Earth radiates its
thermal energy at longer wavelengths than the Sun. While the Sun's radiation peaks at a
visible wavelength of 500 nanometers, Earth's radiation peak is in the longwave (far)
infrared at about 10 micrometres.

Atmospheric absorption of various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation (measured

along sea level).
The Earth's atmosphere is largely transparent at visible and near-infrared wavelengths,
but not at 10 micrometres (this is, probably, not entirely coincidental: the transparency to
"visible" wavelengths makes eyes adapted to seeing these wavelengths useful; and eyes
that could see in a strongly-absorbed wavelength would not be so useful). Only about 6%
of the Earth's total radiation to space is direct thermal radiation from the surface. The
atmosphere absorbs 71% of the surface thermal radiation before it can escape. The
atmosphere itself behaves as a radiator in the far infrared, so it re-radiates this energy.
The Earth's atmosphere and clouds therefore account for 91.4% of its longwave infrared
radiation and 64% of Earth's total emissions at all wavelengths. The atmosphere and
clouds get this energy from the solar energy they directly absorb; thermal radiation from
the surface; and from heat brought up by convection and the condensation of water vapor.
Because the atmosphere is such a good absorber of longwave infrared, it effectively
forms a one-way blanket over Earth's surface. Visible and near-visible radiation from the
Sun easily gets through, but thermal radiation from the surface can't easily get back out.
In response, Earth's surface warms up. The power of the surface radiation increases by
the Stefan-Boltzmann law until it (over time) compensates for the atmospheric
absorption. Another, simpler, but essentially equivalent way of looking at this is that the
surface is heated by two sources: direct solar radiation, and thermal radiation from the
atmosphere; it is thus warmer than if heated by solar radiation alone. The result of the
greenhouse effect is that average surface temperatures are considerably higher than they
would otherwise be if the Earth's surface temperature were determined solely by the
albedo and blackbody properties of the surface.
It is commonplace for simplistic descriptions of the "greenhouse" effect to assert that the
same mechanism warms greenhouses (e.g. [1]), but this is an incorrect oversimplification:
see below.

The above description (and many other simplified expositions of the greenhouse effect)
may give the impression that radiation is the most important method for transmitting heat
through the atmosphere. In the lower atmosphere, particularly in the tropics, convection
and latent heat transport is very important in moving heat vertically upwards from the
surface; the greenhouse effect dynamics described above do operate, but become
important higher in the atmosphere.

Limiting factors
The degree of the greenhouse effect is dependent primarily on the concentration of
greenhouse gases in the planetary atmosphere. The deep and carbon dioxide-rich
atmosphere of Venus (combined with an orbit closer to the sun than that of Earth) causes
surface temperatures hot enough to melt lead, the atmosphere of Earth creates habitable
temperatures, and the thin atmosphere of Mars causes a minimal greenhouse effect.
A runaway greenhouse effect occurred on Venus because of an interaction of the
greenhouse effect with other processes in feedback cycles. Venus is sufficiently strongly
heated by the Sun that water vapour can rise much higher in the atmosphere and is split
into hydrogen and oxygen by ultraviolet light. The hydrogen can then escape from the
atmosphere and the oxygen combines . Therefore less carbon dioxide is reabsorbed by the
planetary crust causing an even higher temperature. As a result, the greenhouse effect was
progressively intensified by positive feedback [2],[3]. On Earth there is a substantial
hydrosphere and biosphere which responds to higher temperatures by recycling
atmospheric carbon more quickly (in geologic terms; the timescale for the
ocean/biosphere to remove a CO2 perturbation is on the order of several hundred years)
[4]. The presence of liquid water thus limits the increase in the greenhouse effect through
negative feedback. This state of affairs is expected to persist for at least hundreds of
millions of years, but, ultimately, the warming of an aging Sun will overwhelm this
regulatory effect.
The average surface temperature would be 18C if the atmosphere played no role. In
reality this temperature is closer to 15C above zero due to the combination of the
greenhouse effect and the convective flow of heat energy within the atmosphere. Because
convection (vertical exchanges of unstably stratified air, predominantly by storm clouds)
moves heat above much of the thermal IR absorbance of the atmosphere, the greenhouse
effect on the surface is smaller than it would be in the absence of such convection [5].
Recent measurements of carbon dioxide amounts from Mauna Loa observatory show that
CO2 has increased from about 313 ppm (parts per million) in 1960 to about 375 ppm in
2005. The current observed amount of CO2 exceeds the geological record of CO2 maxima
(~300 ppm) from ice core data (Hansen, J., Climatic Change, 68, 269, 2005 [6]);
however, carbon dioxide levels during the Cretaceous Period are believed to be much
higher than they are now. CO2 production rate from increased industrial activity (fossil
fuel burning) and other human activities such as land-use changes has overwhelmed the
normal feedback control mechanisms. Global climate model calculations indicate that the
elevated CO2 levels are likely to lead to global warming. There has been an observed

global average temperature increase of about 0.5oC since 1960 (Science 308, 1431, 2005).
There is still some public controversy about the role of human activities and that of CO2
and other greenhouse gas increases for global warming.

The greenhouse gases

Water vapour is the single most important absorber (between 36% and 66% of the
greenhouse effect), and together with clouds makes up between 66% and 85%. CO2 alone
makes up between 9 and 26%, while the O3 and the other minor GHG absorbers consist
of up to 7 and 8% of the effect, respectively [7]. Collectively, these gases are known as
greenhouse gases. The greenhouse effect due to carbon dioxide is specifically known as
the Callendar effect.
The wavelengths of light that a gas absorbs can be modelled with quantum mechanics
based on molecular properties of the different gas molecules. It so happens that
heteronuclear diatomic molecules and tri- (and more) atomic gases absorb at infrared
wavelengths but homonuclear diatomic molecules do not absorb infrared light. This is
why H2O and CO2 are greenhouse gases but the major atmospheric constituents (N2 and
O2) are not.
Between the absorptions of water vapor and those of carbon dioxide, there is an
atmospheric window where, prior to the industrial era, no infrared radiation was trapped,
lying between 8 and 15 micrometres. Compounds such as perflurocarbons (CF4, C2F6
etc.), chlorofluorocarbons, halons and SF6 absorb very strongly in this window. This
means that they are extremely potent greenhouse gases, especially given the absence of
natural sinks to remove them. Perfluorocarbons can have a lifetime of 50,000 years.

Effects of various gases

It is hard to disentangle the percentage contributions to the greenhouse effect by different
gases, because their respective infrared spectrums overlap. However, one can calculate
the percentage of trapped radiation remaining, and discover:

% trapped radiation


H2O, CO2, O3












(Source: Ramanathan and Coakley, Rev. Geophys and Space Phys., 16 465 (1978)); see
also [8].

Water vapor effects

Water vapor is the major contributor to Earth's greenhouse effect. Its effects vary due to
localized concentrations, mixture with other gases, frequencies of light, different behavior
in different levels of the atmosphere, and whether positive or negative feedback takes
place. High humidity also affects cloud formation, which has major effects upon
temperature but is distinct from water vapor gas.
The IPCC TAR (2001; section 2.5.3) reports that, despite non-uniform effects and
difficulties in assessing the quality of the data, water vapor has generally increased over
the 20th Century.
Estimates of the percentage of Earth's greenhouse effect due to water vapor:

36% (table above)

6070% PBS tv show Nova. GreenhouseGreen Planet [9]

Including clouds, the table above would suggest 50%. For the cloudless case, IPCC 1990,
p 4748 estimate water vapor at 6070% whereas Baliunas & Soon estimate 88% [10]
considering only H2O and CO2. Water vapor in the troposphere, unlike the better-known
greenhouse gases such as CO2, is essentially passive in terms of climate: the residence
time for water vapor in the atmosphere is short (about a week) so perturbations to water
vapor rapidly re-equilibriate. In contrast, the lifetimes of CO2, methane, etc, are long
(hundreds of years) and hence perturbations remain. Thus, in response to a temperature
perturbation caused by enhanced CO2, water vapor would increase, resulting in a
(limited) positive feedback and higher temperatures. In response to a perturbation from

enhanced water vapor, the atmosphere would re-equilibriate due to clouds causing
reflective cooling and water-removing rain. The contrails of high-flying aircraft
sometimes form high clouds which seem to slightly alter the local weather.

Real greenhouses
The term 'greenhouse effect' originally came from the greenhouses used for gardening,
but it is a misnomer since greenhouses operate differently [11] [12]. A greenhouse is built
of glass; it heats up primarily because the Sun warms the ground inside it, which warms
the air near the ground, and this air is prevented from rising and flowing away. The
warming inside a greenhouse thus occurs by suppressing convection and turbulent
mixing. This can be demonstrated by opening a small window near the roof of a
greenhouse: the temperature will drop considerably. It has also been demonstrated
experimentally (Wood, 1909): a "greenhouse" built of rock salt (which is transparent to
IR) heats up just as one built of glass does. Greenhouses thus work primarily by
preventing convection; the greenhouse effect however reduces radiation loss, not
convection. It is quite common, however, to find sources (e.g. [13] [14]) that make the
"greenhouse" analogy. Although the primary mechanism for warming greenhouses is the
prevention of mixing with the free atmosphere, the radiative properties of the glazing can
still be important to commercial growers. With the modern development of new plastic
surfaces and glazings for greenhouses, this has permitted construction of greenhouses
which selectively control radiation transmittance in order to better control the growing