Our planet, The Earth, is situated in its own greenhouse: the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect is natural, and life on Earth depends on it. Sunlight – energy from the sun – passes through the atmosphere and warms land and water surfaces. The amount of sunlight reaching the Earth is called insolation. Sunlight is perceived as colorless or as “white” light.
Did you ever try sunbathing on cliffs on a nice summer’s day?
Even after sunset you can feel the heat from the rocks. The white sunlight has warmed the cliffs during the day. The warm cliffs emit rays of energy long after sunset. These rays of energy cannot be seen by humans unless we wear special glasses enabling us to see infrared. (The military uses this quite a lot).
The infrared rays of energy emitted to the air, go back to outer space or temporarily warms the air around us, keeping it warm even when the sun is not shining. In contrast to other planets in our solar system, the Earth thus has a natural temperature control system. Certain atmospheric gases are critical to this system and are known as greenhouse gases
On average, about one third of the solar radiation that hits the earth is reflected back to space. Of the remainder, the atmosphere absorbs some, but the land and oceans absorb the most. The Earth’s surface becomes warm and as a result emits infrared radiation. Infrared light is heat energy.
Greenhouse gases are abbreviated GHG.
The greenhouse gases ‘trap’ the infrared radiation, thus warming the atmosphere.
Technically, when the infrared rays hit a GHG molecule, it starts vibrating.
When this molecule vibrates, it makes adjacent gas molecules of any kind to vibrate as well. Vibration is a form of energy that is converted to heat energy according to the physical laws of thermodynamics.
Close –up: Incoming Sunrays warming the earth. Outgoing, warm infrared hitting molecules of greenhouse gases: H2O, CO2, CH4, N2O making them vibrate.
The GHG molecule vibrations makes evenings and early nights feel warm after a sunny day. Without the GHG, the nights would immediately turn extremely cold at once the sunlight disappears. An increased greenhouse effect therefore can be observed as increasingly warmer nights.
Metaphorically, the planet Earth has “clothes” on. The moon has no atmosphere and no greenhouse gases. In other words, the moon is “naked”. The temperature differences on the moon are enormous, with more than 100°C at daytime, and colder than – 150°C at nighttime. Our atmosphere stabilizes the temperatures, avoiding the extremes we can observe on the moon. The atmosphere with its small but crucial amounts of greenhouse gases allows life as we know it to develop.
- “Virtual laboratory”: Understanding the structure of the atmosphere is critical in understanding where and how global warming occurs. This visualization illustrates the major layers in the atmosphere and identifies a number of key characteristics and defining attributes of each layer.
- “Virtual laboratory”: Collisional heating of the amtosphere. Experiment with absorption of infrared radiation by CO2 in the troposphere and the collisional loss of this absorbed energy to surrounding N2 and O2 molecules. In this animation the user can sweep through a region of the IR spectrum and excite some of the vibrational modes of CO2. A simple (purely qualitative) thermometer illustrates the rise in temperature of the gas as collisional de-excitation occurs