The greenhouse effect
of solar radiation on the Earth's surface caused by emission of greenhouse gases.
A greenhouse gas (sometimes abbreviated GHG) is a gas that absorbs and emits radiant energy within the thermal infrared range, causing the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere are water vapor (H
2O), carbon dioxide (CO
2), methane (CH
4), nitrous oxide (N
2O), and ozone (O3). Without greenhouse gases, the average temperature of Earth's surface would be about −18 °C (0 °F), rather than the present average of 15 °C (59 °F). The atmospheres of Venus, Mars and Titan also contain greenhouse gases.
Human activities since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (around 1750) have produced a 45% increase in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, from 280 ppm in 1750 to 415 ppm in 2019. The last time the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was this high was over 3 million years ago. This increase has occurred despite the uptake of more than half of the emissions by various natural "sinks" involved in the carbon cycle.
At current greenhouse gas emission rates, temperatures could increase by 2 °C (3.6 °F), which the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) designated as the upper limit to avoid "dangerous" levels, by 2036. The vast majority of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions come from combustion of fossil fuels, principally coal, petroleum (including oil) and natural gas, with additional contributions coming from deforestation and other changes in land use.
Gases in Earth's atmosphere
The major constituents of Earth's atmosphere, nitrogen (N
2)(78%), oxygen (O
2)(21%), and argon (Ar)(0.9%), are not greenhouse gases because molecules containing two atoms of the same element such as N
2 and O
2 have no net change in the distribution of their electrical charges when they vibrate, and monatomic gases such as Ar do not have vibrational modes. Hence they are almost totally unaffected by infrared radiation. Some molecules containing just two atoms of different elements, such as carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen chloride (HCl), do absorb infrared radiation, but these molecules are short-lived in the atmosphere owing to their reactivity or solubility. Therefore, they do not contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect and often are omitted when discussing greenhouse gases.
Greenhouse gases are those that absorb and emit infrared radiation in the wavelength range emitted by Earth. Carbon dioxide (0.04%), nitrous oxide, methane, and ozone are trace gases that account for almost 0.1% of Earth's atmosphere and have an appreciable greenhouse effect.
In order, the most abundant
greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere are:
Atmospheric concentrations are determined by the balance between sources (emissions of the gas from human activities and natural systems) and sinks (the removal of the gas from the atmosphere by conversion to a different chemical compound or absorption by bodies of water). The proportion of an emission remaining in the atmosphere after a specified time is the "airborne fraction" (AF). The annual airborne fraction is the ratio of the atmospheric increase in a given year to that year's total emissions. As of 2006 the annual airborne fraction for CO
2 was about 0.45. The annual airborne fraction increased at a rate of 0.25 ± 0.21% per year over the period 1959–2006.
Indirect radiative effects
The false colors in this image represent concentrations of carbon monoxide in the lower atmosphere, ranging from about 390 parts per billion (dark brown pixels), to 220 parts per billion (red pixels), to 50 parts per billion (blue pixels).
Some gases have indirect radiative effects (whether or not they are greenhouse gases themselves). This happens in two main ways. One way is that when they break down in the atmosphere they produce another greenhouse gas. For example, methane and carbon monoxide (CO) are oxidized to give carbon dioxide (and methane oxidation also produces water vapor). Oxidation of CO to CO
2 directly produces an unambiguous increase in radiative forcing although the reason is subtle. The peak of the thermal IR emission from Earth's surface is very close to a strong vibrational absorption band of CO
2 (wavelength 15 microns, or wavenumber 667 cm−1). On the other hand, the single CO vibrational band only absorbs IR at much shorter wavelengths (4.7 microns, or 2145 cm−1), where the emission of radiant energy from Earth's surface is at least a factor of ten lower. Oxidation of methane to CO
2, which requires reactions with the OH radical, produces an instantaneous reduction in radiative absorption and emission since CO
2 is a weaker greenhouse gas than methane. However, the oxidations of CO and CH
4 are entwined since both consume OH radicals. In any case, the calculation of the total radiative effect includes both direct and indirect forcing.
A second type of indirect effect happens when chemical reactions in the atmosphere involving these gases change the concentrations of greenhouse gases. For example, the destruction of non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) in the atmosphere can produce ozone. The size of the indirect effect can depend strongly on where and when the gas is emitted.
Methane has indirect effects in addition to forming CO
2. The main chemical that reacts with methane in the atmosphere is the hydroxyl radical (OH), thus more methane means that the concentration of OH goes down. Effectively, methane increases its own atmospheric lifetime and therefore its overall radiative effect. The oxidation of methane can produce both ozone and water; and is a major source of water vapor in the normally dry stratosphere. CO and NMVOCs produce CO
2 when they are oxidized. They remove OH from the atmosphere, and this leads to higher concentrations of methane. The surprising effect of this is that the global warming potential of CO is three times that of CO
2. The same process that converts NMVOCs to carbon dioxide can also lead to the formation of tropospheric ozone. Halocarbons have an indirect effect because they destroy stratospheric ozone. Finally, hydrogen can lead to ozone production and CH
4 increases as well as producing stratospheric water vapor.
Contribution of clouds to Earth's greenhouse effect
The major non-gas contributor to Earth's greenhouse effect, clouds, also absorb and emit infrared radiation and thus have an effect on greenhouse gas radiative properties. Clouds are water droplets or ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere.
Impacts on the overall greenhouse effect
Schmidt et al. (2010)
analysed how individual components of the atmosphere contribute to the total greenhouse effect. They estimated that water vapor accounts for about 50% of Earth's greenhouse effect, with clouds contributing 25%, carbon dioxide 20%, and the minor greenhouse gases and aerosols
accounting for the remaining 5%. In the study, the reference model atmosphere is for 1980 conditions. Image credit: NASA
The contribution of each gas to the greenhouse effect is determined by the characteristics of that gas, its abundance, and any indirect effects it may cause. For example, the direct radiative effect of a mass of methane is about 84 times stronger than the same mass of carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame but it is present in much smaller concentrations so that its total direct radiative effect has so far been smaller, in part due to its shorter atmospheric lifetime in the absence of additional carbon sequestration. On the other hand, in addition to its direct radiative impact, methane has a large, indirect radiative effect because it contributes to ozone formation. Shindell et al. (2005) argues that the contribution to climate change from methane is at least double previous estimates as a result of this effect.
When ranked by their direct contribution to the greenhouse effect, the most important are:
|Water vapor and clouds
(A) Water vapor strongly varies locally
(B) The concentration in stratosphere. About 90% of the ozone in Earth's atmosphere is contained in the stratosphere.
In addition to the main greenhouse gases listed above, other greenhouse gases include sulfur hexafluoride, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons (see IPCC list of greenhouse gases). Some greenhouse gases are not often listed. For example, nitrogen trifluoride has a high global warming potential (GWP) but is only present in very small quantities.
Proportion of direct effects at a given moment
It is not possible to state that a certain gas causes an exact percentage of the greenhouse effect. This is because some of the gases absorb and emit radiation at the same frequencies as others, so that the total greenhouse effect is not simply the sum of the influence of each gas. The higher ends of the ranges quoted are for each gas alone; the lower ends account for overlaps with the other gases. In addition, some gases, such as methane, are known to have large indirect effects that are still being quantified.
Aside from water vapor, which has a residence time of about nine days, major greenhouse gases are well mixed and take many years to leave the atmosphere. Although it is not easy to know with precision how long it takes greenhouse gases to leave the atmosphere, there are estimates for the principal greenhouse gases.
Jacob (1999) defines the lifetime of an atmospheric species X in a one-box model as the average time that a molecule of X remains in the box. Mathematically can
be defined as the ratio of the mass (in kg) of X in the box to its removal rate, which is the sum of the flow of X out of the box
chemical loss of X
and deposition of X
(all in kg/s):
If input of this gas into the box ceased, then after time , its concentration would decrease by about 63%.
The atmospheric lifetime of a species therefore measures the time required to restore equilibrium following a sudden increase or decrease in its concentration in the atmosphere. Individual atoms or molecules may be lost or deposited to sinks such as the soil, the oceans and other waters, or vegetation and other biological systems, reducing the excess to background concentrations. The average time taken to achieve this is the mean lifetime.
Carbon dioxide has a variable atmospheric lifetime, and cannot be specified precisely. Although more than half of the CO
2 emitted is removed from the atmosphere within a century, some fraction (about 20%) of emitted CO
2 remains in the atmosphere for many thousands of years. Similar issues apply to other greenhouse gases, many of which have longer mean lifetimes than CO
2, e.g. N2O has a mean atmospheric lifetime of 121 years.
Radiative forcing and annual greenhouse gas index
The radiative forcing (warming influence) of long-lived greenhouse gases in earth's atmosphere is undergoing accelerating growth. Nearly one-third of the industrial-era increase ending year 2019 accumulated over just the prior 30 years.
Earth absorbs some of the radiant energy received from the sun, reflects some of it as light and reflects or radiates the rest back to space as heat. Earth's surface temperature depends on this balance between incoming and outgoing energy. If this energy balance is shifted, Earth's surface becomes warmer or cooler, leading to a variety of changes in global climate.
A number of natural and man-made mechanisms can affect the global energy balance and force changes in Earth's climate. Greenhouse gases are one such mechanism. Greenhouse gases absorb and emit some of the outgoing energy radiated from Earth's surface, causing that heat to be retained in the lower atmosphere. As explained above, some greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades or even centuries, and therefore can affect Earth's energy balance over a long period. Radiative forcing quantifies (in Watts per square meter) the effect of factors that influence Earth's energy balance; including changes in the concentrations of greenhouse gases. Positive radiative forcing leads to warming by increasing the net incoming energy, whereas negative radiative forcing leads to cooling.
The Annual Greenhouse Gas Index (AGGI) is defined by atmospheric scientists at NOAA as the ratio of total direct radiative forcing due to long-lived and well-mixed greenhouse gases for any year for which adequate global measurements exist, to that present in year 1990. These radiative forcing levels are relative to those present in year 1750 (i.e. prior to the start of the industrial era). 1990 is chosen because it is the baseline year for the Kyoto Protocol, and is the publication year of the first IPCC Scientific Assessment of Climate Change. As such, NOAA states that the AGGI "measures the commitment that (global) society has already made to living in a changing climate. It is based on the highest quality atmospheric observations from sites around the world. Its uncertainty is very low."
Global warming potential
The global warming potential (GWP) depends on both the efficiency of the molecule as a greenhouse gas and its atmospheric lifetime. GWP is measured relative to the same mass of CO
2 and evaluated for a specific timescale. Thus, if a gas has a high (positive) radiative forcing but also a short lifetime, it will have a large GWP on a 20-year scale but a small one on a 100-year scale. Conversely, if a molecule has a longer atmospheric lifetime than CO
2 its GWP will increase when the timescale is considered. Carbon dioxide is defined to have a GWP of 1 over all time periods.
Methane has an atmospheric lifetime of 12 ± 3 years. The 2007 IPCC report lists the GWP as 72 over a time scale of 20 years, 25 over 100 years and 7.6 over 500 years. A 2014 analysis, however, states that although methane's initial impact is about 100 times greater than that of CO
2, because of the shorter atmospheric lifetime, after six or seven decades, the impact of the two gases is about equal, and from then on methane's relative role continues to decline. The decrease in GWP at longer times is because methane is degraded to water and CO
2 through chemical reactions in the atmosphere.
Examples of the atmospheric lifetime and GWP relative to CO
2 for several greenhouse gases are given in the following table:
The use of CFC-12 (except some essential uses) has been phased out due to its ozone depleting properties. The phasing-out of less active HCFC-compounds will be completed in 2030.
Natural and anthropogenic sources
Top: Increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide
levels as measured in the atmosphere and reflected in ice cores
. Bottom: The amount of net carbon increase in the atmosphere, compared to carbon emissions from burning fossil fuel
Aside from purely human-produced synthetic halocarbons, most greenhouse gases have both natural and human-caused sources. During the pre-industrial Holocene, concentrations of existing gases were roughly constant, because the large natural sources and sinks roughly balanced. In the industrial era, human activities have added greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests.
The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report compiled by the IPCC (AR4) noted that "changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, land cover and solar radiation alter the energy balance of the climate system", and concluded that "increases in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations is very likely to have caused most of the increases in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century". In AR4, "most of" is defined as more than 50%.
Abbreviations used in the two tables below: ppm = parts-per-million; ppb = parts-per-billion; ppt = parts-per-trillion; W/m2 = watts per square metre
400,000 years of ice core data
Ice cores provide evidence for greenhouse gas concentration variations over the past 800,000 years (see the following section). Both CO
2 and CH
4 vary between glacial and interglacial phases, and concentrations of these gases correlate strongly with temperature. Direct data does not exist for periods earlier than those represented in the ice core record, a record that indicates CO
2 mole fractions stayed within a range of 180 ppm to 280 ppm throughout the last 800,000 years, until the increase of the last 250 years. However, various proxies and modeling suggests larger variations in past epochs; 500 million years ago CO
2 levels were likely 10 times higher than now. Indeed, higher CO
2 concentrations are thought to have prevailed throughout most of the Phanerozoic eon, with concentrations four to six times current concentrations during the Mesozoic era, and ten to fifteen times current concentrations during the early Palaeozoic era until the middle of the Devonian period, about 400 Ma. The spread of land plants is thought to have reduced CO
2 concentrations during the late Devonian, and plant activities as both sources and sinks of CO
2 have since been important in providing stabilising feedbacks.
Earlier still, a 200-million year period of intermittent, widespread glaciation extending close to the equator (Snowball Earth) appears to have been ended suddenly, about 550 Ma, by a colossal volcanic outgassing that raised the CO
2 concentration of the atmosphere abruptly to 12%, about 350 times modern levels, causing extreme greenhouse conditions and carbonate deposition as limestone at the rate of about 1 mm per day. This episode marked the close of the Precambrian eon, and was succeeded by the generally warmer conditions of the Phanerozoic, during which multicellular animal and plant life evolved. No volcanic carbon dioxide emission of comparable scale has occurred since. In the modern era, emissions to the atmosphere from volcanoes are approximately 0.645 billion tonnes of CO
2 per year, whereas humans contribute 29 billion tonnes of CO
2 each year.
Measurements from Antarctic ice cores
show that before industrial emissions started atmospheric CO
2 mole fractions were about 280 parts per million (ppm), and stayed between 260 and 280 during the preceding ten thousand years. Carbon dioxide mole fractions in the atmosphere have gone up by approximately 35 percent since the 1900s, rising from 280 parts per million by volume to 387 parts per million in 2009. One study using evidence from stomata of fossilized leaves suggests greater variability, with carbon dioxide mole fractions above 300 ppm during the period seven to ten thousand years ago, though others have argued that these findings more likely reflect calibration or contamination problems rather than actual CO
2 variability. Because of the way air is trapped in ice (pores in the ice close off slowly to form bubbles deep within the firn) and the time period represented in each ice sample analyzed, these figures represent averages of atmospheric concentrations of up to a few centuries rather than annual or decadal levels.
Changes since the Industrial Revolution
Recent year-to-year increase of atmospheric CO
Major greenhouse gas trends.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the concentrations of many of the greenhouse gases have increased. For example, the mole fraction of carbon dioxide has increased from 280 ppm to 415 ppm, or 120 ppm over modern pre-industrial levels. The first 30 ppm increase took place in about 200 years, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to 1958; however the next 90 ppm increase took place within 56 years, from 1958 to 2014.
Recent data also shows that the concentration is increasing at a higher rate. In the 1960s, the average annual increase was only 37% of what it was in 2000 through 2007.
Total cumulative emissions from 1870 to 2017 were 425±20 GtC (1539 GtCO2) from fossil fuels and industry, and 180±60 GtC (660 GtCO2) from land use change. Land-use change, such as deforestation, caused about 31% of cumulative emissions over 1870–2017, coal 32%, oil 25%, and gas 10%.
the stock of carbon in the atmosphere increases by more than 3 million tonnes per annum (0.04%) compared with the existing stock. This increase is the result of human activities by burning fossil fuels, deforestation and forest degradation in tropical and boreal regions.
The other greenhouse gases produced from human activity show similar increases in both amount and rate of increase. Many observations are available online in a variety of Atmospheric Chemistry Observational Databases.
Role of water vapor
Increasing water vapor in the stratosphere at Boulder, Colorado
This graph shows changes in the annual greenhouse gas index (AGGI) between 1979 and 2011.
The AGGI measures the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere based on their ability to cause changes in Earth's climate.
Water vapor accounts for the largest percentage of the greenhouse effect, between 36% and 66% for clear sky conditions and between 66% and 85% when including clouds. Water vapor concentrations fluctuate regionally, but human activity does not directly affect water vapor concentrations except at local scales, such as near irrigated fields. Indirectly, human activity that increases global temperatures will increase water vapor concentrations, a process known as water vapor feedback. The atmospheric concentration of vapor is highly variable and depends largely on temperature, from less than 0.01% in extremely cold regions up to 3% by mass in saturated air at about 32 °C. (See Relative humidity#Other important facts.)
The average residence time of a water molecule in the atmosphere is only about nine days, compared to years or centuries for other greenhouse gases such as CH
4 and CO
2. Water vapor responds to and amplifies effects of the other greenhouse gases. The Clausius–Clapeyron relation establishes that more water vapor will be present per unit volume at elevated temperatures. This and other basic principles indicate that warming associated with increased concentrations of the other greenhouse gases also will increase the concentration of water vapor (assuming that the relative humidity remains approximately constant; modeling and observational studies find that this is indeed so). Because water vapor is a greenhouse gas, this results in further warming and so is a "positive feedback" that amplifies the original warming. Eventually other earth processes offset these positive feedbacks, stabilizing the global temperature at a new equilibrium and preventing the loss of Earth's water through a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect.
Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions
Since about 1750 human activity has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. As of 2001, measured atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide were 100 ppm higher than pre-industrial levels. Natural sources of carbon dioxide are more than 20 times greater than sources due to human activity, but over periods longer than a few years natural sources are closely balanced by natural sinks, mainly photosynthesis of carbon compounds by plants and marine plankton. As a result of this balance, the atmospheric mole fraction of carbon dioxide remained between 260 and 280 parts per million for the 10,000 years between the end of the last glacial maximum and the start of the industrial era.
It is likely that anthropogenic
(human-induced) warming, such as that due to elevated greenhouse gas levels, has had a discernible influence on many physical and biological systems.
Warming is having a range of impacts
, including sea level rise
increased frequencies and severities of some extreme weather
events, loss of biodiversity
and regional changes in agricultural productivity
Removal from the atmosphere
Greenhouse gases can be removed from the atmosphere by various processes, as a consequence of:
- a physical change (condensation and precipitation remove water vapor from the atmosphere).
- a chemical reaction within the atmosphere. For example, methane is oxidized by reaction with naturally occurring hydroxyl radical, OH· and degraded to CO
2 and water vapor (CO
2 from the oxidation of methane is not included in the methane Global warming potential). Other chemical reactions include solution and solid phase chemistry occurring in atmospheric aerosols.
- a physical exchange between the atmosphere and the other components of the planet. An example is the mixing of atmospheric gases into the oceans.
- a chemical change at the interface between the atmosphere and the other components of the planet. This is the case for CO
2, which is reduced by photosynthesis of plants, and which, after dissolving in the oceans, reacts to form carbonic acid and bicarbonate and carbonate ions (see ocean acidification).
- a photochemical change. Halocarbons are dissociated by UV light releasing Cl· and F· as free radicals in the stratosphere with harmful effects on ozone (halocarbons are generally too stable to disappear by chemical reaction in the atmosphere).
A number of technologies remove greenhouse gases emissions from the atmosphere. Most widely analysed are those that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, either to geologic formations such as bio-energy with carbon capture and storage and carbon dioxide air capture, or to the soil as in the case with biochar. The IPCC has pointed out that many long-term climate scenario models require large-scale man-made negative emissions to avoid serious climate change.
History of scientific research
In the late 19th century scientists experimentally discovered that N
2 and O
2 do not absorb infrared radiation (called, at that time, "dark radiation"), while water (both as true vapor and condensed in the form of microscopic droplets suspended in clouds) and CO
2 and other poly-atomic gaseous molecules do absorb infrared radiation. In the early 20th century researchers realized that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere made Earth's overall temperature higher than it would be without them. During the late 20th century, a scientific consensus evolved that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause a substantial rise in global temperatures and changes to other parts of the climate system, with consequences for the environment and for human health.
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- ^ Because atmospheric concentrations of most gases tend to vary systematically over the course of a year, figures given represent averages over a 12-month period for all gases except ozone (O3), for which a current global value has been estimated (IPCC, 2001, Table 4.1a). CO
2 averages for year 2012 are taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory, web site: www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends maintained by Dr. Pieter Tans. For other chemical species, the values given are averages for 2011. These data are found on the CDIAC AGAGE web site: http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ndps/alegage.html or the AGAGE home page: http://agage.eas.gatech.edu.
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