Climate change basics: the greenhouse effect

A Moment of Science

Greenhouses gases aren’t the boogeyman they’re sometimes made out to be. In fact, we desperately need some in Earth’s atmosphere to survive.


Without any naturally occurring greenhouse gases, Earth would be similar to Mars. A frozen, potentially lifeless planet with an average temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully this isn’t the case as greenhouse gases trap heat through the greenhouse effect. The science behind the greenhouse effect really isn’t complicated. The principle is in the name: greenhouse.

Most of us don’t have a greenhouse, but a lot of us have something similar- a car. 


I know a car is pretty different from a greenhouse but both warm-up due to the greenhouse effect. The sun’s rays pass through the glass windows, warming the interior which radiates up into the air as heat. This infrared heat can not pass through the glass, but gets trapped- redirecting that reflected heat back and warms the car well above the outside temperature. Consider those hot summer days where the temperature in your car can reach well into the triple digits if left out in direct sunlight!

That’s the greenhouse effect! It works the same on a global scale.

Solar energy from the sun passes through our atmosphere and warms up the Earth. Some of this heat is radiated back upward. A small amount gets lost into space but the overwhelming majority, nearly 90%, of that radiated heat is absorbed by greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. That heat is then redirected back towards the surface- trapping it & further warming our planet compared to if the sun’s rays alone was our only source of warmth.


Greenhouse gases exist naturally in our atmosphere but human activities are adding more and more to our atmosphere. Which sends more heat back to the Earth, further warming it as a result.

Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (ipcc) report

There are years of data to back this up. A group of 1,300 independent scientific experts from countries all over the world, concluded there’s a more than 95 percent probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet through increased amounts of human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.

This is directly impacting our climate- leading to cascading impacts across the world and in our backyard- which I’ll explore more in subsequent Moment of science segments this month. Be sure to check back next week as I’ll break down the main greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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