The Natural Greenhouse Effect
The Earth works in a similar way to a greenhouse. In a greenhouse, the sun’s rays fall through the glass panes and heat the air and soil inside. The warm air remains trapped in the greenhouse and the tomatoes ripen faster.
This is roughly the same with Earth. Instead of glass panes, the Earth is surrounded by the atmosphere — a 100 kilometer or 60 miles thick layer of air. The sun shines through the atmosphere, heating up the surface, but some of the rays are reflected back.
The atmosphere is a layer of air that consists of various gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). This mixture of gases determines how much heat reaches the ground and, thus, how high the temperatures are on our planet. Like the glass in a greenhouse, it will also trap some of the rays and reflects them back to Earth, which is thereby additionally heated up.
The rising temperatures because of the atmospheric layer is called the natural greenhouse effect. Without this layer, Earth would be covered in ice, then instead of the average temperature of plus 15°C or 59°F, we would have minus 18°C or 0.4°F.
Humans Increase The Greenhouse Effect
The unnatural (anthropogenic) greenhouse effect is caused and intensified by humans in various ways:
With the development of engines over 100 years ago, humans started to burn more coal and wood in factories, as well as gasoline once driving cars became more commonplace. The burning of those materials produces CO2. The more you burn, the more CO2 is produced. That CO2 is then collected and builds up in the atmosphere.
This disturbs the balance of the natural gas mixture in the atmosphere.
How The Greenhouse Effect Leads To Global Warming
It is true that trees and other plants can convert CO2 back into oxygen, which we need for life and which does not harm our atmosphere. But we are now producing so much CO2 that the trees can no longer offset it.
The problem is further amplified by the deforestation of the rainforests and urban sprawl. Without trees and other plants to offset the increasing amount of CO2 being produced by humans, excess rises into the atmosphere, where it disturbs the natural mixture of gases.
The consequence to this is a rise in temperatures on Earth. Here’s how it works:
The sun shines through the atmosphere down to Earth, heating the air and soil. It bounces off the surface, but the buildup in the atmosphere acts as a blanket, preventing much of the sun’s rays from exiting. Only a small amount of the rays can rise through the gases. Just like a greenhouse, the light is contained and the air on Earth heats up much more quickly than usual.
Adding to the problem, devices such as cars, computers or manufacturing factories, for example, radiate additional heat through their consumption of energy. This heat can hardly escape into the atmosphere due to the large amount of CO2 and therefore contributes to the rise in temperatures on Earth.
Over the last 100 years, the average surface temperature has risen by about 1-degree Fahrenheit. Global warming has dramatic consequences not only for the visible ice at our poles, but especially for permafrost grounds. Permafrost regions store enormous amounts of greenhouse gases — more than the entire atmosphere. Because of climate change, it is thawing faster and faster — and releasing more and more gases.