No, not some gas stuck in a green house, but close! It’s easy to read headlines but how often do we actually understand important topics? These are the top notes on the greenhouse effect that will have you looking like a pro with your knowledge.
You heard about it in middle school science class (I was distracted, too) and you hear of it on the news with respect to climate change, but what are greenhouse gases? Why should we care?
We’ll delve into the definition of greenhouse gas, where it’s name came from, their location in the earth’s atmosphere, what greenhouse gases do for us, and finally some solutions to reducing the biggest gas of them all.
What Are They?
A greenhouse gas is a gas that traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere. There are 4 main gases in the atmosphere: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N20), and fluorinated gases (mix of gases emitted from industrial processes). While each gas plays a part in the atmosphere, we need to worry most about CO2 because it’s the biggest gas in volume.
CO2 leaves a 73.5% impact on the climate. How could that be? Well, that’s mostly our fault… Most human-generated CO2 is produced by burning fossil fuels: coal, natural gas, and oil. These materials were once a part of living things and burning them puts a large amount of CO2 into the air and into the atmosphere where it gets stuck like gum.
Guess how long it can take CO2 to leave the atmosphere? HUNDREDS and THOUSANDS of years. Greenhouse gases stick around like a bad habit that won’t go away, and no one likes those.
Why Are They Called Greenhouse Gases?
They get their name from the tactic of a greenhouse. A greenhouse has a ton of windows to let the light in, because sunlight creates warmth. The purpose of a greenhouse is that it doesn’t let the warmth escape.
So in the atmosphere, sunlight is being passed through but the gases trap the sunlight’s heat, increasing the temperature. In a way, this is a good thing because it keeps our earth nice and toasty (otherwise we’d freeze). However, to quote Sam Smith, “too much of a good thing isn’t good anymore.”
Where Are They Located?
There are many layers to the earth, including inner and outer layers. Gases in our atmosphere are trapped in one of the outer layers.
Specifically, greenhouse gases are in the troposphere. I’m guessing you’re racking your middle school brain to remember which one that is, so here’s a lovely diagram.
What Do Greenhouse Gases Do?
These gases get trapped in the troposphere and increase the temperature of the earth, also referred to as global warming.
What does that mean for us? Unfortunately, global warming has its negative effects. There is a rise in extreme weather patterns such as droughts and floods, melting ice, sea-level, ocean acidification, human diseases, animal survival, and so on.
The Greenhouse Effect
This process can be a doozy to understand so I think it’s better seen than read. Here is a diagram (don’t judge my google drawing skills) of the greenhouse effect.
- Arrow 1: the sun sends short-wave solar radiation to earth. Some of that wave radiation (warmth) gets absorbed onto the earth’s surface making it nice and toasty for us.
- Arrow 2: some of that same warmth from the sun hits the earth’s surface and reflects back toward space (like a basketball bouncing back up).
- Arrow 3: also called long-wave infrared radiation, this travels through the earth’s atmosphere and into space.
- Arrow 4: radiation that gets absorbed in the earth’s atmosphere, which is where the greenhouse gases in the troposphere live. Those greenhouse gases absorb outgoing long-wave radiation (arrow 3).
- Arrow 5: the greenhouse gases that absorbed the radiation in arrow 4 transmit it back to the earth’s surface which makes us a little too toasty.
We love our solutions to problems, but I’ve realized we are really good at small issues: fixing the car engine, making dog socks to cover up their clicking on your floor, or using tape to get the perfect cat-eye.
The really large and powerful problems are a little bit tougher to master. Some that come to mind are overcoming a fear, making a career transition, or coming up with solutions to reducing the amount of greenhouse gases. Solutions are essential to our lives, and some just might save us in the long run.
How Do We Reduce CO2?
While keeping the gases in the atmosphere can be good, we have to reduce the amount of human-produced CO2 (since it’s the largest in volume) in order to create a better balance. What can this look like?
- Change transportation to fewer motor vehicles. According to It Still Runs, car emissions are up to 95% CO2. How about biking, considering an electric vehicle, or carpooling next time?
- Encourage forestation. At this point, the more trees, the better! There are a ton of benefits of plants and trees, one being they cool down the environment. Check out Ecosia, too, it’s a search engine that plants trees.
- There is something called direct carbon capture and storage. What this means is filtering CO2 out from the air and storing it in porous rocks (rocks with holes) deep underground. The only downside to this is that it uses a lot of energy, but if done properly and quickly we could have a decrease in CO2.
- Implement carbon taxing. I know, no one likes paying taxes but if you want to live longer you might have to start. Our atmosphere is a part of our world and we need to take care of it if we want to survive.
- We can all appreciate the word organic, so if farmers use organic fertilizers we could be on the right track long-term!
- Finally, reduce the burning of fossil fuels. This is a big one.
Some of the easiest ways you can help reduce this greenhouse gas is by spreading the word and living more sustainably.
Talk to people around you and start a conversation about why greenhouse gases matter and what we can do to reduce CO2. You hear about these topics but it’s vital to share the knowledge. We are social creatures who crave purpose, after all.