What is the Greenhouse Effect?

In the greenhouse effect, energy from the sun is trapped and heats the Earth.
Some studies show that the livestock industry is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.
Venus provides a good example of what happens when the greenhouse effect becomes too thick.
Article Details
  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: L. S. Wynn
  • Last Modified Date: 06 October 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
  • Print this Article
External Resources
Free Widgets for your Site/Blog
The CDC reported that eight foods, including peanuts and milk, account for 90% of food allergies.  more...

October 25 ,  1971 :  The United Nations expelled Taiwan and admitted China.  more...

The greenhouse effect refers to the fact that earth is surrounded by an atmosphere which acts like the transparent cover of a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to filter through while trapping heat.

Greenhouse gases are trace gases of mainly water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide. The earth's atmosphere largely consists of nitrogen and oxygen, but they are not greenhouse gases nor do they contribute to the greenhouse effect.

During the daytime, the earth absorbs heat directly from the sun and reflects it out to space. Without an atmosphere causing a greenhouse effect, this heat would escape at night, in the absence of direct sunlight, and the earth's temperature would fall rapidly. Instead, gaseous molecules absorb the heat given off by the planet, and re-radiate it out in all directions, reabsorbing it and redistributing it again and again. This keeps the earth's surface relatively warm and the average temperature comfortable. This phenomenon is key in earth's ability to maintain a temperature that sustains life.


A look to our neighboring planets of Venus and Mars shows what happens when the greenhouse effect — which is akin to a blanket covering the planet — becomes too thick or too thin. Temperatures on Venus soar because of its very thick blanket or atmosphere. The runaway effect here is staggering. Mars on the other hand has such a thin blanket (atmosphere) and a weak greenhouse effect, that the planet is very cold. Nearly all of the heat that reaches Mars escapes. Relative distance from the Sun plays a part in the global temperatures of the inner planets, but a greenhouse effect, or lack thereof, is largely responsible for the climates on all these planets.

Scientists started using the term "greenhouse effect" in the 1800's. At that time it had no negative connotation. In the mid 1950's the term began to be associated with global warming and also with the negative effects of our industrial age. This enhanced greenhouse effect, as it's sometimes referred to, is the result of burning fossil fuels. This releases additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at the rate of about 3 gigatons (3 billion metric tons) per year. Since carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbs heat, we can expect that significant increases in CO2 will tend to raise the global temperature, possibly contributing to global warming. Simply put, if greenhouse gases act like a blanket to keep our planet warm, we are thickening that blanket.


More from Wisegeek

You might also Like

Discuss this Article

Post 6

@ Glasshouse- I can give it a shot. This is probably the most common example.

The warmer surface temperatures cause the polar ice caps to melt. When these melt, they decrease the salinity of the ocean. The result is less dense water, which slows, or potentially stalls, the thermohaline conveyor belt. This is how the ocean circulates water and creates currents. If the currents shift or stop then the ocean's surface becomes warmer and wind and storm patterns will shift as well.

Less dense water also leads to higher sea levels pushing the 1 billion or so people who live near the coast inland. This shift in weather patterns, unpredictability in seasons, and the likes will lead to a situation where the planet is forced to auto-correct. This will lower the planets carrying capacity, leading to the inevitable death and displacement of millions of people.

Post 5

@ GiraffeEars- How does the warming of the atmosphere and the effect of greenhouse gases cause climate change? I am undecided on whether I believe in climate change or not, so I want to a simplified scientific explanation.

Post 4

@ Anon30263- The greenhouse effect and global warming are closely related. Greenhouse gases act like an insulator. Think of the atmosphere in terms of clouds on a winter day. If there is a lot of cloud cover, the nighttime temperature will be much warmer during the winter. When there is no cloud cover at night, all of the solar radiation that was trapped during the day will escape back into space. The greenhouse gases that make up the atmosphere act the same as clouds.

The greenhouse effect has been active since before humanity, but since the industrial revolution, the amount of greenhouse gases from anthropogenic sources has thickened the atmosphere. This causes an increase in retained solar energy, which leads to global warming, and ultimately climate change. All of the earth's climate systems are based on the interactions between the atmosphere and solar radiation. The movement of ocean currents, global wind patterns, precipitation patterns, and storm system formation are all byproducts of the greenhouse effect.

Post 3

What is the relationship between global warming and greenhouse effect?

Post your comments

Post Anonymously


forgot password?