The Greenhouse Effect - Causes & Impacts

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The Greenhouse Effect: Causes & Impacts


The greenhouse effect refers to circumstances where the short wavelengths of visible light from the sun pass through a transparent medium and are absorbed, but the longer wavelengths of the infrared re-radiation from the heated objects are unable to pass through that medium. The trapping of the long wavelength radiation leads to more heating and a higher resultant temperature. Besides the heating of an automobile by sunlight through the windshield and the namesake example of heating the greenhouse by sunlight passing through sealed, transparent windows, the greenhouse effect has been widely used to describe the trapping of excess heat by the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide strongly absorbs infrared and does not allow as much of it to escape into space.

A major part of the efficiency of the heating of an actual greenhouse is the trapping of the air so that the energy is not lost by convection. Keeping the hot air from escaping out the top is part of the practical "greenhouse effect", but it is common usage to refer to the infrared trapping as the "greenhouse effect" in atmospheric applications where the air trapping is not applicable.

Solar radiation at the frequencies of visible light largely passes through the atmosphere to warm the planetary surface, which then emits this energy at the lower frequencies of infrared thermal radiation. Infrared radiation is absorbed by greenhouse gases, which in turn re-radiate much of the energy to the surface and lower atmosphere. The mechanism is named after the effect of solar radiation passing through glass and warming a greenhouse, but the way it retains heat is fundamentally different as a greenhouse works by reducing airflow, isolating the warm air inside the structure so that heat is not lost by convection. Earth’s natural greenhouse effect makes life as we know it possible. However, human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming

Greenhouse Effect Example

Bright sunlight will effectively warm a car on a cold, clear day by the greenhouse effect. The longer infrared wavelengths radiated by sun-warmed objects do not pass readily through the glass. The entrapment of this energy warms the interior of the vehicle. The trapping of the hot air so that it cannot rise and lose the energy by convection also plays a major role. Short wavelengths of visible light are readily transmitted through the transparent windshield. Shorter wavelengths of ultraviolet light are largely blocked by glass since they have greater quantum energies which have absorption mechanisms in the glass. Even though one may be uncomfortably warm with bright sunlight streaming through, one will not be sunburned.


The Earth receives energy from the Sun in the form UV, visible, and near IR radiation, most of which passes through the atmosphere without being absorbed. Of the total amount of energy available at the top of the atmosphere (TOA), about 50% is absorbed at the Earth's surface. Because it is warm, the surface radiates far IR thermal radiation that consists of wavelengths that are predominantly much longer than the wavelengths that were absorbed (the overlap between the incident solar spectrum and the terrestrial thermal spectrum is small enough to be neglected for most purposes). Most of this thermal radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere and re-radiated both upwards and downwards; that radiated downwards is absorbed by the Earth's surface. This trapping of long-wavelength thermal radiation leads to a higher equilibrium temperature. This highly simplified picture of the basic mechanism needs to be qualified in a number of ways, none of which affect the fundamental process.

The incoming radiation from the Sun is mostly in the form of visible light and nearby...
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