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The Greenhouse Effect - What Is It?

Feb 26, 2008
There has been much discussion, both among experts and lay people, about the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is a term that refers to changes in the Earths atmospheric composition, which have been related to the warming of our planet. There is a growing amount of evidence that human activities, particularly those relating to the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal, are major contributors to the greenhouse effect. The predicted consequences for the planet as a result of the greenhouse effect are extremely serious. They include major changes in the climate that will have an impact on food production and rising sea levels, which will put many coastal and other low-lying communities under water.

Additional information that we have learned about the planet Venus provide a frightening example of the greenhouse effect. Venus has a very dense atmosphere made up of gases. The planet has what has been described as a runaway greenhouse effect. It has surface temperature of about 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Experts generally point to gases like carbon dioxide as the main contributors to the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide, which is a gas that is exhaled by everyone, can absorb infrared radiation. This type of radiation is heat that is radiating away from a warm object. During the day, the Earth is warmed by sunlight, and at night, the Earth cools off by radiating the heat back into space in the form of infrared radiation. Carbon dioxide, and other gases to some extent, absorb this radiation and limit its exit into space. Therefore, the natural cooling mechanism is thwarted.

While it may seem that eliminating the greenhouse effect would be the best strategy, this is not what we want to do. Water vapor represents another element in the heat-absorbing process. There is a great amount of water vapor in the atmosphere at all times. This is why we experience rain. We need the water vapor in the atmosphere to keep the Earth at its normal, comfortable temperature. Without the warmth created by water vapor, the planet would freeze, and that would be the end of life as we know it. Therefore, we need to have some degree of the greenhouse effect in order to maintain life on Earth.

We need to strike a balance. Mother Nature is telling us, again, what we should already have learned by now in any situation, extremes of any kind cause harm.
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