Climate change basics: carbon dioxide & other greenhouse gases

A Moment of Science

Greenhouse gases are a collection of gases in the atmosphere that trap heat from escaping- warming our planet through the greenhouse effect.

Some, like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen dioxide exists naturally in our atmosphere but human activities are increasing their concentrations through the burning of fossil fuels and agricultural and industrial practices. Other gases with much more complicated names (try pronouncing hydrofluorocarbon) are purely man-made and don’t exist in nature.

Each greenhouse gas is not equal to the others. Some cause a much bigger impact on our climate. The degree of that impact depends on three main factors: how strong, how long, and how much.


Some gases are much more effective than others at trapping heat. Methane, for example, is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, absorbing 25 times more heat pound for pound. That’s nothing compared to fluorinated gases. These man-made gases are truly the heavyweights in regards to their warming potential, thousands of times stronger than carbon dioxide.

One such fluorinated gas, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs was banned globally in 1989 after being widely used for refrigeration from the 1930-1980s. However, its impact remains today as these gases don’t immediately disappear, it takes time.


Methane lingers for nearly a dozen years in our atmosphere. Carbon dioxide? Roughly a century. Fluorinated gases? Thousands of years.

Our emissions outlive us- and will remain in our atmosphere- impacting our climate, for generations. Roughly half of the CO2 emitted since 1850 remains in our atmosphere today, and we’re continuing to add to it. 


Out of all of the different greenhouse gases we add to our atmosphere, carbon dioxide impacts our climate the most. While it may not be as strong as methane in holding heat, or linger as long compared to man-made gases, it is certainly the most prevalent. Carbon dioxide emissions make up nearly 80 percent of all human-derived greenhouse gas emissions

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
Graph and data from climate.nasa.gov

Global CO2 levels today are higher than any point in at least the past 800,000 years, now measuring 410 parts per million in a sample of air. If our reliance on fossil fuels continues as global population rises, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are projected to exceed 900 parts per million by 2100.

This will continue to warm our planet- but this impact is just one of many. Climate change extends beyond global warming with complicated consequences. I’ll break down those impacts more next week. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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