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A Quick Look at Greenhouse Gases

Great B2 Lab concern over greenhouse gas has grown over the past decade or two and there is a good reason why.  Pollution, in general continues to be a growing concern as temperatures rise and ecosystems change dramatically.  But what are greenhouse gases and why are they bad? Or, are they really that bad?

What Is A Greenhouse Gas?

A greenhouse gas is a naturally-occurring atmospheric gas that both absorbs and emits radiant energy that resides within the thermal infrared range.  The primary greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere include:

  • Carbon dioxide
  • Methane
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Ozone
  • Water vapor

Now, most of the gas in Earth’s atmosphere comprises of nitrogen and oxygen. These are each two-molecule atoms that are bound together tightly and unable to vibrate. Because of this vibration, they cannot absorb heat; thus they also contribute to the greenhouse effect.

Two Common (and Dangerous) Greenhouse Gases

Carbon dioxide might constitute only a small fraction of our atmosphere but it might also have the largest effect on overall climate. Made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms, there was only about 270 parts per million volume in the Earth’s atmosphere in the middle of the 19th century.  Because of increased reliance on fossil fuels, there is about 400 parts per million volume today.

Methane is another powerful greenhouse gas; made up of one carbon and four hydrogen atoms. It can absorb more heat than carbon dioxide but is found in only very small quantities today. Still, it greatly contributes to global warming, partially because when you burn it, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (see above).

Why are they Called “Greenhouse Gases”?

Because of their nature, these gases essentially help to insulate the Earth.  Without the presence of these gases, the surface of our planet would actually be about -18 degrees C (about 0 degrees F).  For reference sake, the current average surface temperature of the planet Earth is about 15 degrees C (or 59 F).  

Essentially, these gases turn the Earth’s atmosphere into a greenhouse by helping the surface to absorb solar energy and then radiate back into the atmosphere as heat.  The concern, of course, is that an imbalance of these gases will increase the amount of solar energy that is radiated back into the atmosphere as heat, making the surface temperature warmer.

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