The Greenhouse Effect The United States releases twenty tons of carbon monoxide per person per year. Carbon Monoxide release is a result of burning fossil fuels with an insufficient amount of oxygen that causes the formation of carbon monoxide that pollutes our environment. Every day fuel is burnt by cars, airplanes, large factories and manufacturing plants. This is causing a very large and deadly problem for our environment. When gases used on earth are released into the atmosphere they act as a blanket and trap radiation that is then redirected to earth. This concept is called the Greenhouse Effect.
In this essay I will discuss the greenhouse gasses and their role in the Greenhouse Effect. With all the talk about the prospects of climate change, including international debates focused on the possibility of reduced gaseous emissions, one centrally important consideration often gets ignored. It turns out that the greenhouse gases that contribute to warming the earth constitute only about 1 percent of all gaseous atmospheric material. And if one considers only the subset of these gaseous molecules whose concentrations are thought to be altered by human activities, their atmospheric contribution drops to well below 1 percent. In the past 50 years we have begun to realize that these additions to our atmosphere, which come primarily from fossil fuel burning, will likely have significant impacts on human and ecosystem health and welfare. Simply put, these ''new'' gases, despite their low relative concentrations, have and will continue to demand our attention from political and economic points-of-view.
Remarkably, even though so small in percentage terms, greenhouse gases are critical to our maintenance of a planetary atmosphere conducive for life. Recognizing how such a minute portion of our atmosphere affects humans so significantly is a first step towards understanding why seemingly small quantities matter and likely a requisite step for living in a sustainable way. Quantities are small in relative percentage terms, but in net emission terms, the U. S.
, alone, emitted a staggering 89 billion pound of CO 2-equivalent greenhouse gas in 1998. Most gases in the atmosphere do little to enhance global surface temperatures, in fact, the two most abundant gases, namely nitrogen and oxygen, contribute little or nothing to increased temperatures at the surface. However, some gases, known as greenhouse gases, have a very special property that enables them to warm the Earth's near surface environments substantially. Specifically, these gases, which include (in order of decreasing abundance) water vapor (H 2 O), carbon dioxide (CO 2), methane (CH 4), nitrous oxide (N 2 O), ozone (O 3), and a variety of chlorofluorocarbons, have the property that they are nearly transparent to visible light but absorb great quantities of earth light, one example of this is the sun. Earth light, or infrared light, is emitted by the earth and can only be observed by humans with the use of special optical devices, appropriately named ''infrared'' binoculars. It is through the absorption of this light and the subsequent re emission of much of it back towards the Earth's surface that enables the atmosphere to serve as a blanket - the Greenhouse Effect.
Of all the many greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide certainly gets the most attention. While much of this attention is well deserved because of CO 2's likely impact on ''global warming,' ' too often a focus on CO 2 alone obscures the larger problem. Since the mid-1800 s, many greenhouse gases have been rising steadily in concentration through emissions from various human activities. CO 2, the most important of these due to its much larger abundance, has been exponentially increasing in concentration through the enhanced emissions from fossil fuel burning associated with the onset and continued industrialization of the world's economy. Yet, CO 2 isn't the only gas that is undergoing greater levels of emissions due to expanding industrial processes. For instance, CFCs, which constitute a group of many larger molecules containing carbon, chlorine and fluorine, didn't exist on Earth until the late 1930 s when they were created and mass-produced as an inert, miracle gas for refrigeration and air conditioning devices.
Thus, concentrations of CFCs in 1930 were 0 ppm while concentrations in 2000 average about 700 ppt (parts-per-trillion), clearly a substantial growth pattern over a small period of time. Unfortunately, it took more than 50 years of the use of CFCs before scientists determined how detrimental this innocuous gas was to our livelihood. Ozone (O 3), another greenhouse gas, is formed in the troposphere as a byproduct of solar light stimulating reactions among tailpipe emissions, and ranges in concentration from 60 ppb (parts-per-billion) in the troposphere and 1000 ppb in the upper atmosphere (where is created by alternative means). Ozone has one of the most complex and confusing atmospheric distributions and impacts on incoming and outgoing radiation -- both of which have substantial importance on biological health. Nitrous oxide (N 2 O), a. k.
a. laughing gas, is a greenhouse gas produced in the production of pantyhose, among other nylon products, and has an average atmospheric concentration of 0. 3 ppm. The existence of the above greenhouse gases is known to keep the planet much warmer and without them the earth would be virtually uninhabitable for most current life. Probably the resource most taken for granted in this world is the air, particularly the oxygen that we breathe. Most of us could last several weeks without food and a few days without water, but very few of us can survive for more than minute or so without air.
Both humans and animals need a constant supply of oxygen or our bodies shut down. Thankfully, the atmosphere is plentiful with this resource. Currently, the oxygen that we require takes up nearly 21 percent (by volume) of the air that we breathe; most of what we breathe in is nitrogen which, strangely enough, has little known purpose ingested into the body in gaseous form. Now while this vital resource is found in relative abundance, other essential gaseous resources are much less common. Specifically, the greenhouse gases, which enable the earth to be 59^0 F (or 33^0 C) warmer, and therefore habitable for most modern life forms, are much more scant than oxygen. In 1884, Samuel Langley, a physicist studying the sun's heat as measured at the Earth's surface, determined that the atmosphere's ability to selectively absorb radiant energy (i.
e. , light) enables the Earth to be much, much warmer. Now, while Langley greatly overestimated the atmosphere's temperature enhancing effects, he was very much on track in that the atmosphere provides a tremendous utility in controlling our climates. To summarize, our world faces a tremendous challenge over the next 50-100 years.
While our earth is a very fit temperature for human dominance, it is just this dominance that may get the best of us by way of a more energetic and unstable environment. All the aforementioned greenhouse gases have concentrations much less than 1 percent (or equivalently, 10 parts-per-thousand) yet they have this incredible ability to disrupt life as we know it, at a blink of an eye on geologic time scales. We humans must quickly come to terms with the incredible power of these sparse gases before greater harm and damage is realized. One percent cannot be overlooked because, if it is, humanity and life itself will have to suffer the consequences. Bibliography Chir as, Daniel D. Environmental Science: Creating a Sustainable Future, 6 th Ed.
Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett, 2001. Lomb org, Bjorn. The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. New York: Touchstone, 2000. Wilson, Edward.
The Future of Life. New York: Springer-Verlag, 2001.