Earth, Climate & Environment

Greenhouse Effect

Greenhouse Effect, the capacity of certain gases in the atmosphere to trap heat emitted from the Earth’s surface, thereby insulating and warming the Earth. Without the thermal blanketing of the natural greenhouse effect, the Earth’s climate would be about 33 Celsius degrees (about 59 Fahrenheit degrees) cooler—too cold for most living organisms to survive.
The greenhouse effect has warmed the Earth for over 4 billion years. Now scientists are growing increasingly concerned that human activities may be modifying this natural process, with potentially dangerous consequences. Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, humans have devised many inventions that burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning these fossil fuels, as well as other activities such as clearing land for agriculture or urban settlements, releases some of the same gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These atmospheric gases have risen to levels higher than at any time in the last 420,000 years. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they trap more heat near the Earth’s surface, causing Earth’s climate to become warmer than it would naturally.

Scientists call this unnatural heating effect global warming and blame it for an increase in the Earth’s surface temperature of about 0.6 Celsius degrees (about 1 Fahrenheit degree) over the last nearly 100 years. Without remedial measures, many scientists fear that global temperatures will rise 1.4 to 5.8 Celsius degrees (2.5 to 10.4 Fahrenheit degrees) by 2100. These warmer temperatures could melt parts of polar ice caps and most mountain glaciers, causing a rise in sea level of up to 1 m (40 in) within a century or two, which would flood coastal regions. Global warming could also affect weather patterns causing, among other problems, prolonged drought or increased flooding in some of the world’s leading agricultural regions.

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