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What Are Greenhouse Gases?

Are greenhouse gases good or bad? Or both? Learn about the greenhouse effect on our climate here.

More About Climate Change

If you ever listen to the discussions about global warming and climate change, you are likely to have heard the term "greenhouse" gases many times.

But what are greenhouse gases, really? And to what extent do we have to care about them?

Greenhouse Gases Explained

What Are Greenhouse Gases?

Greenhouse gases is a name for all gases in the atmosphere that tend to lock in heat. What these gases do is to absorb the sun's radiation and re-emit radiation back into the atmosphere. When sunlight strikes the Earth's surface, some of it is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation (heat). Greenhouse gases absorb this infrared radiation and trap the heat in the atmosphere.

Over time, the amount of energy sent from the sun to the Earth's surface should be about the same as the amount of energy radiated back into space, leaving the temperature of the Earth's surface roughly constant. Without these greenhouse gases, the Earth's surface would be on average about 33C (59F) colder than at present, and probably a uninhabited planet, so they are not causing harm per se.

However, what is happening today is that the concentration of greenhouse gases in increasing rapidly in the atmosphere.

And guess what happens?

Correct - with more greenhouse gases, more heat is being trapped in the atmosphere, leading to a more rapid pace of global warming than ever seen before.

Where Do They Come From?

So which are these gases and where do they come from? Good question!

The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere are water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2) methane, nitrous oxide (NO) and several human-made gases (like for example they used for aerosols). In addition to natural processes, greenhouse gas emissions derive primarily from energy use, i.e. burning of fossil fuels.

There are complicated, natural processes occurring that make sure that the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere are kept constant. However, due to the vast, human-induced increase in greenhouse gas emissions over the past 200 years, the natural processes have not been able to keep concentrations stable. Instead they are increasing at a rapid pace, as can be seen in the picture below. (The term "anthropogenic emissions" means emissions by humans rather than by natural processes.)

what are greenhouse gases

Scary looking, don't you think?! Well, climate change is a very good reason to consider energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar energy. Every little bit of action helps!

Video Explanation

Want a visual explanation of what greenhouse gases are? Then take two minutes to watch this simple, animated video.

And for an brilliant discussion on whether to take action to prevent climate change or not, click here.

Learn more

If you want to learn more about what greenhouse and global warming, here are a few recommended resources:

  • The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change
  • Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity
  • An Inconvenient Truth

More About Climate Change


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