Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Taking measure of the greenhouse effect

Scientists have long known that heat-absorbing components of Earth¡¯s atmosphere, such as clouds and certain gases, prevent our planet from being an ice-covered ball.

Now, for the first time, a study comprehensively calculates the relative contributions of the components responsible for that heating, known as the greenhouse effect.

Besides clarifying an important aspect of climate science, the study also demonstrates that rising concentrations of one heat-trapping gas ¡ª carbon dioxide ¡ªleads to much more greenhouse warming than just the heat the gas absorbs directly itself.

Various studies have looked at the contributions of water vapor, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases. But none had systematically estimated the contributions of each of the main players, says climate scientist Gavin Schmidt of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and lead author of the new research.

These contributions ¡°are among the most misquoted statistics in public discussions of climate change,¡± the authors write. Their study has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research -- Atmospheres, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

"The existing literature is quite confused," Schmidt says. "If you ask a lot of climate scientists, straight up, 'how much of the current greenhouse effect is due to carbon dioxide?', you get all sorts of numbers."

With the new study, Schmidt says, the team is aiming to provide a single estimate for the contribution of each of the major factors, which can help cut through the confusion and serve as a reference for public discussions of climate change.

The study found that water vapor was the biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect, responsible for about 50 percent of the effect. The next biggest contributor is clouds, contributing about 25 percent of the greenhouse effect. Clouds come in various types, with high thin clouds more effective at trapping heat and lower, thicker clouds more effective at reflecting sunlight, cooling the Earth. The study focused on the heat-trapping ability of clouds.

After that comes carbon dioxide, contributing about 20 percent of the greenhouse effect. Other trace gases and aerosols contribute only about 5 percent, the study found. That includes a variety of greenhouse gases such as methane, which comes from burping livestock, irrigation, landfills and mining activities, and nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas, which comes mainly from the decomposition of chemical fertilizers on croplands. Soot in the air also has a warming effect, making up part of this 5 percent.

Schmidt and colleagues arrived at these numbers by tweaking computer simulations of the planet, known as climate models. They did one set of tests where they subtracted each of these contributors ¡ª such as carbon dioxide ¡ª one at a time, to see how much less heat would be trapped. They also did another set of tests in which they removed all the greenhouse contributors, and then added them back individually. The numbers above are, in essence, averages of the results from these two tests.

Overall, the greenhouse effect warms the planet by about 33 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit), turning it from a frigid ice-covered ball with a global average temperature of about -17 degrees C (1 degree F), to the climate we have today. Heat-absorbing components contribute directly to that warmth by intercepting and absorbing energy passing through the atmosphere as electromagnetic waves. But that direct heating effect can also have secondary effects ¡ª for instance, when additional carbon dioxide raises the planet's temperature, then the air can become more humid, carrying more heat-trapping water vapor. This in turn heats the planet further, amplifying the effect of a dose of additional carbon dioxide. This is a main reason why scientists are concerned that people are rapidly raising the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

To test increasing carbon dioxide¡¯s effect, the researchers simulated the consequences of doubling its concentration in their model. The experiment resulted in some additional greenhouse heating attributable directly to the added gas soaking up more energy, but 5 times as much of a boost in greenhouse heating overall. The researchers report that ¡°the extra net absorption by carbon dioxide has been amplified by the response of water vapor and clouds¡­.¡±

Even though methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, soot, and a variety of other factors only contribute about 5 percent of today's greenhouse effect, "you can't ignore them," Schmidt says. "Even though their contribution is small, they're changing very fast," he adds. Preventing them from adding further to the blanket of heat-trapping substances is another lever, besides cutting carbon dioxide emissions, that could fight global warming.

Schmidt collaborated on the study with Goddard Institute colleagues Reto Ruedy, Ron Miller and Andrew Lacis.

¡°Attribution of the present©day total greenhouse effect¡±

Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>