The Chatter on Carbon Part 2: The Greenhouse Effect By Marie Bouffard/Special to ECHO Last week we started learning about carbon ...

Blog Series: The Science of Stewardship

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The Chatter on Carbon Part 2: The Greenhouse Effect

By Marie Bouffard/Special to ECHO


Last week we started learning about carbon and we discussed the ways human activities are changing the natural cycle of carbon on Earth. You might be wondering why it matters that the carbon cycle has been altered and how having more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the planet. The reason is that carbon dioxide (CO2) and Methane (CH4) belong to a group of gases known as Greenhouse Gases. Scientists agree that human expansion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the main cause of the global warming trend. In fact, CO2 especially is a driving force behind climate change because it is the most important human contributed greenhouse gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CO2 accounts for 82% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States.

To understand why carbon dioxide plays such a critical role in climate change we first need to understand exactly what a green house gas is. Greenhouse gases are any gas in the atmosphere that absorb infrared radiation and included in this group are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Greenhouse gases exist naturally in the atmosphere and it’s a good thing they do, without them the planet would be too cold for life to survive and that’s because greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. 

The way this happens is that our planet gets lots of energy from the sun in the form of sunlight. Much of the sunlight energy gets absorbed into the ground and some bounces off the Earth’s surface back into space. As the Earth’s surface warms from the energy it absorbed it then gives off the energy in a different form as infrared radiation. This infrared radiation is released back toward space but greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap some of this energy and keep it in the Earth’s atmosphere. This trapped energy warms the atmosphere making it much warmer than if all of it escaped into space. 

This all sounds pretty good, as it’s the reason we have a nice, warm planet to live on, but keep in mind that it’s all a delicate balance. Remember how we talked about the carbon cycle and how, due to human activities, there is much more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than would be naturally present? This is where that becomes important. Because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas it contributes to the warming of the atmosphere, which would be fine except that humans have been emitting so much more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere lately that more and more energy is being trapped and the atmosphere is actually increasing in temperature.

Scientists agree that such unnaturally high levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the main cause of global warming.  Because Earth’s many systems like the land, atmosphere, water, and ocean currents are all connected, climate change has countless direct and indirect effects on the planet. The consequences of Earth’s temperature increasing average temperature can be seen all over the world with the melting of glaciers and ice caps, increasing numbers of droughts and floods, more severe storms, rising seas and much more. We as humans must be very careful with how we move forward with our role in climate change because seemingly small changes in climate can have massive and disastrous implications for our world.

Stay tuned in our blog series The Science of Stewardship for Part 3 of The Chatter on Carbon to learn about what people mean when they talk about their carbon footprint and steps you can take to reduce yours.



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