How Greenhouse Effect works & Climate Change Adaptation

how greenhouse effect works

Goals & Objectives

  • Understand how greenhouse effect works
  • Discover the main greenhouse gases 
  • Learn about how the effect of greenhouse gases is measured
  • Read about two types of essential climate change adaptation for current generations

TL;DR

Greenhouse effect is heat trapping by the gases in the atmosphere which contribute to global warming. To measure greenhouse gases strength scientists use two indicators – Global Warming Potential and Atmospheric Lifetime.

We can adapt to Climate Change in the short-term in two ways – psychological adaptation and with the community based adaptation.

Have you ever seen a greenhouse? The one where farmers can grow their vegetable when it’s colder outside. When the temperature outside is colder than vegetation requires, nothing will grow in the soil. Unless it is protected by a greenhouse, which creates a greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse captures the heat from the sun, allowing it to enter the greenhouse construction. It also makes it harder for warmth to escape, keeping part of it inside. The temperature is then warmer inside the greenhouse than on the outside, which allows plants to grow, creating adequate conditions.

What is Greenhouse Effect?

The Earth is one big greenhouse. It is the atmosphere which plays the role of the protective shield that keeps the warmth inside. How does it happen? Let’s see from the beginning. 

Heat trapping by Greenhouse effect

What is Greenhouse Effect

The sun radiates a different type of waves that our planet receives. When these waves reach the Earth, planet’s surface reflects around 30% of them back into space. This is thanks to the white surface areas (snow, glaciers, clouds). Water and earth absorb another 70% of the waves that Sun sends to us. But later they radiate this heat back in the form of infrared waves.

The heat radiated back does not all get out immediately. Part of it is trapped in the atmosphere by special gases, called the greenhouse gases. Because of this trapping of the heat in the atmosphere, our planet is warmer. Average temperatures (globally and yearly) reach around +14 °C of, which helps to sustain life and vegetation. The greenhouse effect is, therefore, a natural phenomenon that makes our planet habitable. Without it, the average global temperatures could be around -18 °C.

Turning the temperature on

How greenhouse effect works

Greenhouse gases exist naturally in the atmosphere. That’s why life on Earth could develop in the first place, after it had appropriate conditions. But more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere means more heat gets trapped for longer, increasing the global temperatures.

While the amount of greenhouse gases can naturally increase, the rate of increase has been unprecedented in the past 140 years due to the human factors. Hence, we contribute to the heating of the atmosphere more and more every year.

Why did we wait so long

The damaging effects of the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been known for quite some time already. However, this information reached the wider public relatively recently, when the effects started to be more prominent and immediate. 

Why didn’t governments start acting on this earlier? Because most of the emissions are due to industrial production. Companies would either need to spend more by using pricier green energy or reduce the output to lessen the greenhouse effect. In both cases it reflects bad on their profits.

Greed and chasing money turned our planet in a warmer greenhouse, which traps more heat than is optimal. When the temperatures become too high, it creates an extreme condition, to which we are not used to. Even in a greenhouse which is too warm, plants die. When our planet is too warm, all life on it is headed towards extinction.

3 Main Greenhouse Gases (plus water)

3 main greenhouse gases

So you know already that our atmosphere acts as a greenhouse structure for the Earth, keeping it warm. It does so with the help of greenhouse gases – particles that absorb infrared light (heat in other words). Water and soil both emit it, but greenhouse gases keep it close to the Earth longer. 

Greenhouse gases make up about 1% of all the atmospheric gases (nitrogen and oxygen taking up almost 99% of all the atmospheric gases). Many types of gases can trap the heat in the atmosphere, but let’s concentrate on the major few.

Greenhouse gases – Water Vapor (H2O)

Water vapor, which arises from the warmer oceans, carry the heat with it into the atmosphere where it stays longer. The total contribution of water vapor to the greenhouse effect is estimated to be between 30% and 60%. 

Water vapor present in the atmosphere is not a direct effect of the human contribution to pollution. It is existing global warming and warmer oceans that increase water’s contribution to climate change.

Greenhouse gases – Carbon dioxide (CO2)

CO2 is naturally present in the atmosphere, but it is also present on the Earth. Human activities release some of the stored CO2 into the atmosphere. This additional increase is what drives global warming. 

Because it is the most prevalent greenhouse gas (except for water) scientists use it as a base to measure the effect of other greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is responsible for 10% -26% of the total greenhouse effect.

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Greenhouse gases – Methane (CH4)

Another gas commonly present in the atmosphere is Methane. It is emitted naturally but also due to human activities. CH4 has a much more powerful warmth trapping effect than CO2. But its concentration in the atmosphere is lower, so its role in the greenhouse effect is between 4% and 9%.

Greenhouse gases – Nitrous Oxide (N2O)

Nitrous Oxide traps around 300 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. It is one of the top pollutants that humans contribute to the atmosphere with their activities (mostly agriculture). On top of its warming potential, N2O also depletes the ozone layer.

Other important greenhouse gases are halocarbons and ozone. 

How Strong Greenhouse Gases Are?

The overall effect which greenhouse gases cause is not linear. Some greenhouse gases are much more powerful in trapping the heat, but they are less present in the atmosphere, making their direct contribution to global warming smaller. However, they may be contributing the heat for a longer time, which increases their total influence on the climate. 

Let’s try to understand better how the greenhouse gas effect is measured.

Global Warming Potential (GWP)

In simple words, GWP is the strengths with which a molecule of a greenhouse gas warms the atmosphere. This is a relative measure, with carbon dioxide (CO2) serving as a measurement base. 

For example, methane (CH4) has a GWP of 25, which means that the same amount of this gas will warm the atmosphere 25 times more than the same amount of CO2. Carbon Dioxide, the most widespread greenhouse gas, has GWP of 1 (because it is the base for the measurement). Nitrous Oxide (N2O) has GWP of 298, which means that the same amount of this gas warms the Earth almost 300 times stronger than CO2.

Halocarbons, are synthetic air pollutants produced by people. They also act as greenhouse gases trapping the heat, and have an immense Global Warming Potential. For example, halocarbon called Sulfur Hexafluoride has a warming potential of 22,800! It is over 20 thousand times more powerful in heating the Earth than carbon dioxide!  

Global warming and greenhouse gases

Atmospheric Lifetime

The second measure of the greenhouse gases effect is the atmospheric lifetime. It is a measure of how long a gas spends in the atmosphere before it is either removed by a sink or converted into another molecule in a chemical reaction. In other words, this is a measure of how long a gas will continue trapping the heat in the atmosphere.  

CO2 molecules have a different atmospheric lifetime. Some of them can disappear as fast as in 20 years. The good news is that a high proportion of CO2 (over 50% – estimate) has this shorter lifespan. This means that if we reduce our CO2 emissions to 0, around half of it could vanish from the atmosphere in 20 years. The bad news is, however, that some CO2 molecules have the atmospheric life of 1000 years! Most of the statistics show an average of 100 years for CO2 atmospheric lifetime.

Methane stays in the atmosphere on average 12 years, whereas nitrous oxide can take 121 years to be removed[1]. Inorganic greenhouse gases (created by humans) can take from 100 to 3,200 years. Here again, Sulfur Hexafluoride, the one with the highest GWP, has the longest atmospheric lifetime. 

Can we Adapt

Climate change adaptation

Nature equipped us with evolution capabilities, which help us to adapt to the changing environment, survive, and ensure species continuation. That would be a logical guess to expect that for this global warming we can hope to enter a new level of development. Whereas answer is not definite, it most certainly is NO. The rate of change that we would enter into with the temperature increase above 1.5 degrees is beyond any living creature on this planet to keep up with evolution.

Nevertheless, we can hope that a form of man-made adaptation is possible. When for a moment, we take our minds off the disastrous outcomes and think about innovations that will only become possible due to the necessity, a glimpse of light dawns on the situation. Maybe we will be able to colonize Mars? Or find a way to reverse the change in climate due to technological advancement? The cost-benefit question still creeps in.

Psychological adaptation to climate change 

At the moment, the most relevant type of adaptation to global warming for the current generation is the psychological adaptation. Seeing how the world changes in front of your eyes can be very heavy on the mind, therefore it is really important to find coping strategies that would ensure we can still function in this world, even though we can see so much damage.

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Join Cause-Based Communities

You can also look at psychological adaptation from the level of communities. It is always easier to live through a change in a supportive environment and a sense of solidarity. When we are all in this together. Whereas it may be easier to adapt in developed countries, with government support and access to technology, it may be less so in impoverished regions. Unfortunately, they are the one suffering the most. They bear the consequences of the climate change, despite their lower contribution to it. That’s one of the reasons for Climate Justice Movement.

Community based adaptation

The idea of Climate Justice prompted the development of programs such as Community Based Adaptation (CBA). The pioneers here are organizations such as CARE, which strive to provide support to less developed countries. They welcome help and contributions, so if you want to learn more, visit their website. 

We should stop for a moment and think: how can I contribute to the communities affected by climate change the most when they did not even get access to so many things as we did?

Developed societies are the ones that build factories and drive CO2 pollution. This is all for us, consumers, to have an excessive choice and lavish lifestyle. We should stop for a moment and think: how can I contribute to the communities affected by climate change the most when they did not even get access to so many things as I did?   


[1] https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/greenhouse-gases

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