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Geosciences LibreTexts

21.1: Greenhouse Effect

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  • The balance of incoming and outgoing heat on Earth is referred to as its heat budget. As with any budget, to maintain constant conditions the budget must be balanced so that the incoming heat equals the outgoing heat. The heat budget of Earth appears below (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) Earth’s heat budget. Of all of the solar radiation reaching Earth, 30% is reflected back to space and 70% is absorbed by the Earth (47%) and atmosphere (23%). The heat absorbed by the land and oceans is exchanged with the atmosphere through conduction, radiation, and latent heat (phase change). The heat absorbed by the atmosphere is eventually radiated back into space (PW).

    Of all of the solar energy reaching the Earth, about 30% is reflected back into space from the atmosphere, clouds, and surface of the Earth. Another 23% of the energy is absorbed by the water vapor, clouds, and dust in the atmosphere, where it is converted into heat. Just under half (47%) of the incoming solar radiation is absorbed by the land and ocean, and this energy heats up the Earth’s surface. The energy absorbed by the Earth returns to the atmosphere through three processes; conduction, radiation, and latent heat (phase change)(Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Conduction is the transfer of heat through direct contact between the surface and the atmosphere. Air is a relatively poor thermal conductor (which means it is a good insulator), so conduction represents only a small part of the energy transfer between the Earth and the atmosphere; equal to about 7% of the incoming solar energy.

    All bodies with a temperature above absolute zero (-273o C) radiate heat in the form of longwave, infrared radiation (see the electromagnetic spectrum in section 6.5). The warmed Earth is no exception, and about 16% of the original solar energy is radiated from the Earth to the atmosphere (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Some of this radiated energy will dissipate into space, but a significant amount of heat will be absorbed by the atmosphere. This is the basis for the greenhouse effect (Figure 8.12). In the greenhouse effect, shortwave solar radiation passes through the atmosphere and reaches the Earth’s surface where it gets absorbed. When the radiation is re-emitted by the Earth, it is now in the form of long wavelength, infrared radiation, which does not easily pass through the atmosphere. Instead, this infrared radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere, particularly by the greenhouse gases such as CO2, methane, and water vapor. As a result, the atmosphere heats up. Without the greenhouse effect, the average temperature on Earth would be about -18o C, which is too cold for liquid water, and therefore life as we know it could not exist!

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) An explanation of the greenhouse effect (By US EPA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

    There is a great deal of concern about the greenhouse effect across the globe; not because of the presence of the effect itself, but because the effect is intensifying, causing climate change or global warming. Since the Industrial Revolution the atmospheric concentrations of the major greenhouse gases, particularly CO2 and methane, have increased dramatically due to industrialization, the burning of fossil fuels, and deforestation. At the same time, there has been rapid warming of the global climate; CO2 concentrations have increased more than 25% and global temperature has risen by 0.5o C over the past century. Unless production of these greenhouse gases is curbed, this rapid warming trend may continue, with potentially dire consequences.