BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo

Greenhouse effect


The greenhouse effect is the process by which radiation from a planet's atmosphere warms the planet's surface to a temperature above what it would be without its atmosphere.

The basic mechanism can be qualified in a number of ways, none of which affect the fundamental process. The atmosphere near the surface is largely opaque to thermal radiation (with important exceptions for "window" bands), and most heat loss from the surface is by sensible heat and latent heat transport. Radiative energy losses become increasingly important higher in the atmosphere, largely because of the decreasing concentration of water vapor, an important greenhouse gas. It is more realistic to think of the greenhouse effect as applying to a layer in the mid-troposphere, which is effectively coupled to the surface by a lapse rate. The simple picture also assumes a steady state, but in the real world, the diurnal cycle as well as the seasonal cycle and weather disturbances complicate matters. Solar heating applies only during daytime. During the night, the atmosphere cools somewhat, but not greatly, because its emissivity is low. Diurnal temperature changes decrease with height in the atmosphere.

Strengthening of the greenhouse effect through human activities is known as the enhanced (or anthropogenic) greenhouse effect. This increase in radiative forcing from human activity is attributable mainly to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. According to the latest Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century".

Over the past 800,000 years, ice core data shows that carbon dioxide has varied from values as low as 180 ppm to the pre-industrial level of 270 ppm. Paleoclimatologists consider variations in carbon dioxide concentration to be a fundamental factor influencing climate variations over this time scale.

A greenhouse is built of any material that passes sunlight: usually glass or plastic. The sun warms the ground and contents inside just like the outside, and these then warm the air. Outside, the warm air near the surface rises and mixes with cooler air aloft, keeping the temperature lower than inside, where the air continues to heat up because it is confined within the greenhouse. This can be demonstrated by opening a small window near the roof of a greenhouse: the temperature will drop considerably. It was demonstrated experimentally (R. W. Wood, 1909) that a (not heated) "greenhouse" with a cover of rock salt (which is transparent to infrared) heats up an enclosure similarly to one with a glass cover. Thus greenhouses work primarily by preventing convective cooling.

The anti-greenhouse effect is a mechanism similar and symmetrical to the greenhouse effect: in the greenhouse effect, the atmosphere lets radiation in while not letting thermal radiation out, thus warming the body surface; in the anti-greenhouse effect, the atmosphere keeps radiation out while letting thermal radiation out, which lowers the equilibrium surface temperature. Such an effect has been proposed for Saturn's moon Titan.

The greenhouse effect on Venus is particularly large because its dense atmosphere consists mainly of carbon dioxide. "Venus experienced a runaway greenhouse in the past, and we expect that Earth will in about 2 billion years as solar luminosity increases".


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782