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What Is the Greenhouse Effect?

While other planets in Earth's solar system are either scorching hot or bitterly cold, Earth's surface has relatively mild and stable temperatures.

Earth enjoys these temperatures because of its atmosphere — the thin layer of gases that cloak and protect the planet. But humans have changed Earth's atmosphere in dramatic ways over the past two centuries, resulting in global warming.

And to understand global warming, it's first necessary to become familiar with the greenhouse effect.

Greenhouse effect
Left: Naturally occurring greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) — normally trap some of the sun’s heat, keeping the planet from freezing. Right: Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are increasing greenhouse gas levels, leading to an enhanced greenhouse effect. The result is global warming and unprecedented rates of climate change.
Credit: Will Elder, National Park Service

Energy in, energy out

There's a delicate balancing act occurring every day all across the Earth, involving the radiation the planet receives from space and the radiation that's reflected back out to space.

Earth is constantly bombarded with enormous amounts of radiation, primarily from the sun. This solar radiation strikes the Earth's atmosphere in the form of visible light, plus ultraviolet (UV), infrared (IR) and other types of radiation that are invisible to the human eye.

UV radiation has a shorter wavelength and a higher energy level than visible light, while IR radiation has a longer wavelength and a weaker energy level.

About 30 percent of the radiation striking Earth's atmosphere is immediately reflected back out to space by clouds, ice, snow, sand and other reflective surfaces, according to NASA.

The remaining 70 percent of incoming solar radiation is absorbed by the oceans, the land and the atmosphere. As they heat up, the oceans, land and atmosphere release heat in the form of IR thermal radiation, which passes out of the atmosphere and into space.

It's this equilibrium of incoming and outgoing radiation that makes the Earth habitable, with an average temperature of about 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius), according to NASA. Without this atmospheric equilibrium, Earth would be as cold and lifeless as its moon, or as blazing hot as Venus.

The moon, which has almost no atmosphere, is about minus 243 degrees F (minus 153 degrees C) on its dark side. Venus, on the other hand, has a very dense atmosphere that traps solar radiation; the average temperature on Venus is about 864 degrees F (462 degrees C).

The greenhouse effect

The exchange of incoming and outgoing radiation that warms the Earth is often referred to as the greenhouse effect because a greenhouse works in much the same way.

Incoming UV radiation easily passes through the glass walls of a greenhouse and is absorbed by the plants and hard surfaces inside. Weaker IR radiation, however, has difficulty passing through the glass walls and is trapped inside, thus warming the greenhouse. This effect lets tropical plants thrive inside a greenhouse, even during a cold winter.

A similar phenomenon takes place in a car parked outside on a cold, sunny day. Incoming solar radiation warms the car's interior, but outgoing thermal radiation is trapped inside the car's closed windows.

Greenhouse gases and global warming

The gases in the atmosphere that absorb radiation are known as greenhouse gases because they're largely responsible for the greenhouse effect.

These greenhouse gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide (N2O) and other gases, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gasoline have greatly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially CO2, according to NASA.

CO2 and other greenhouse gases act like a blanket, absorbing IR radiation and preventing it from escaping into outer space. The net effect is the gradual heating of Earth's atmosphere and surface, a process known as global warming.

Atmospheric CO2 levels have increased by more than 40 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, from about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 1800s to 400 ppm today. The last time Earth's atmospheric levels of CO2 reached 400 ppm was during the Pliocene Epoch, between 5 million and 3 million years ago, according to the University of California, San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The greenhouse effect, combined with increasing levels of greenhouse gases and the resulting global warming, is expected to have profound implications, according to the near-universal consensus of scientists.

If global warming continues unchecked, it will cause significant climate change, a rise in sea levels, increasing ocean acidification, extreme weather events and other severe natural and societal impacts, according to NASA, the EPA and other scientific and governmental bodies.

Follow Marc Lallanilla on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.com.

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Author Bio
Marc Lallanilla, LiveScience Staff Writer

Marc Lallanilla

Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.
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