How Do Greenhouse Gasses Alter the Planet?

Diagram of greenhouse effect showing rays from sun and atmosphere
Greenhouse Effect

Barb Deluisi / NOAA

Let’s take a look at the major culprit behind climate change today: greenhouse gasses.

There are five major greenhouse gases found in Earth’s atmosphere: water, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. These molecules have the ability to “radiate” any energy they absorb back out in all directions. This means that some of the energy that is leaving the Earth gets absorbed by greenhouse gasses and radiated back down towards Earth’s surface. Just like a greenhouse you would use in your garden, gasses like carbon dioxide insulate the planet, creating a warm climate favorable to life.

Fluctuations in the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere occur naturally over long periods of time.

However, human activity has recently caused the concentration of these gasses in the air to suddenly skyrocket, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), but also nitrous oxide (NO2) and HFC chemicals.

Humans release carbon dioxide when we breath, but more importantly when we burn fossil fuels like oil and coal to fuel our vehicles and to produce electricity. CO2 is also released when we plow soil, cut down trees, or burn firewood. You will also find CO2 emissions from unexpected places, such as in the production of clothing and concrete. Methane is released from the burning of natural gas, as well as from the intestines of cows and other ruminate livestock like goats. Nitrous oxide is found in fertilizers, and HFCs are released by our air conditioners and refrigerators.

What is the effect of an increased percentage of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere?

With more greenhouse gasses trapping energy in the atmosphere, the average temperature of the Earth heats up. While it might not seem like a big deal for the planet to heat up by a few degrees, climate change will cause big problems not just for humans, but for our animals, plants, and landscapes as well.

For example, rising temperatures lead to worse and more frequent extreme weather events. This means more intense fire seasons, droughts, extreme heat, and hurricanes which can have a devastating effect on communities, food systems, and wildlife. Rising temperatures will also cause sea levels to rise. This is not only because glaciers are melting in the north, but also because hotter temps cause the water itself to expand. Rising sea levels have the potential to shift coast lines and threaten major cities and natural landscapes around the world.

By altering the patterns of things like seasons and rainfall, climate change can also disrupt animal and plant species that have evolved to a particular set of conditions over thousands of years. For example, amphibians who rely on the presence of shallow ponds in order to lay their eggs may find pools dried up due to altered rainfall and higher temperatures.


Last updated: October 8, 2021

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