Carbon & the Greenhouse Effect

Carbon contributes to the greenhouse effect. Photo courtesy of Pat Dalton.../Flickr.

The Greenhouse Effect and Global Warming

The "Greenhouse Effect" mimics what happens in a real greenhouse. In a greenhouse, radiation (heat) is trapped by glass window panes. Since the heat does not pass through the glass, it remains in the greenhouse and keeps the inside temperature warmer than the outside temperature (the same effect keeps the inside of your car warm even on a cold sunny day). In the atmosphere, radiation (heat) is trapped by certain gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor.

We see this in action everyday, both on our planet and on others in the solar system. For example, Venus has an atmosphere that contains almost a million times the concentration of carbon dioxide as our atmosphere. If Venus were to have no atmosphere, its average temperature would be about -45ºF. But because of this carbon dioxide (plus a small amount of other greenhouse gases), it has a temperature about 900ºF. Without the greenhouse gases that we have on Earth, it is estimated that our average daily temperature would be about -10ºF, instead of the 60 degrees that it is.

While water vapor has the greatest contribution to atmospheric heating due to the greenhouse effect here on Earth, most of the attention has been focused on carbon dioxide. The reason for this is that the levels of carbon dioxide have increased from about 292 ppm (parts per million) to over 360 PPM over the last 100 years. This increase has corresponded to the same time period over which we have seen the average temperature increase about 1ºC. This has led many to hypothesize that the Earth will continue to get warmer as we release more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Source: Environmental Science Activities for the 21st Century. Trees and Carbon. Retrieved from on October 20, 2010.
Last modified: Tuesday, 13 March 2012, 6:42 PM