What are greenhouse gases?


Many chemical compounds present in Earth's atmosphere behave as 'greenhouse gases'. These are gases which allow direct sunlight (relative shortwave energy) to reach the Earth's surface unimpeded. As the shortwave energy (that in the visible and ultraviolet portion of the spectra) heats the surface, longer-wave (infrared) energy (heat) is reradiated to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases absorb this energy, thereby allowing less heat to escape back to space, and 'trapping' it in the lower atmosphere. Many greenhouse gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and nitrous oxide, while others are synthetic. Those that are man-made include the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and Perfluorocarbons (PFCs), as well as sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). Atmospheric concentrations of both the natural and man-made gases have been rising over the last few centuries due to the industrial revolution. As the global population has increased and our reliance on fossil fuels (such as coal, oil and natural gas) has been firmly solidified, so emissions of these gases have risen. While gases such as carbon dioxide occur naturally in the atmosphere, through our interference with the carbon cycle (through burning forest lands, or mining and burning coal), we artificially move carbon from solid storage to its gaseous state, thereby increasing atmospheric concentrations.

Top of Page Water Vapor

Water Vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, which is why it is addressed here first. However, changes in its concentration is also considered to be a result of climate feedbacks related to the warming of the atmosphere rather than a direct result of industrialization. The feedback loop in which water is involved is critically important to projecting future climate change, but as yet is still fairly poorly measured and understood.

As the temperature of the atmosphere rises, more water is evaporated from ground storage (rivers, oceans, reservoirs, soil). Because the air is warmer, the relative humidity can be higher (in essence, the air is able to 'hold' more water when its warmer), leading to more water vapor in the atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, the higher concentration of water vapor is then able to absorb more thermal IR energy radiated from the Earth, thus further warming the atmosphere. The warmer atmosphere can then hold more water vapor and so on and so on. This is referred to as a 'positive feedback loop'. However, huge scientific uncertainty exists in defining the extent and importance of this feedback loop. As water vapor increases in the atmosphere, more of it will eventually also condense into clouds, which are more able to reflect incoming solar radiation (thus allowing less energy to reach the Earth's surface and heat it up). The future monitoring of atmospheric processes involving water vapor will be critical to fully understand the feedbacks in the climate system leading to global climate change. As yet, though the basics of the hydrological cycle are fairly well understood, we have very little comprehension of the complexity of the feedback loops. Also, while we have good atmospheric measurements of other key greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, we have poor measurements of global water vapor, so it is not certain by how much atmospheric concentrations have risen in recent decades or centuries, though satellite measurements, combined with balloon data and some in-situ ground measurements indicate generally positive trends in global water vapor.

Top of Page Carbon Dioxide

The natural production and absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) is achieved through the terrestrial biosphere and the ocean. However, humankind has altered the natural carbon cycle by burning coal, oil, natural gas and wood and since the industrial revolution began in the mid 1700s, each of these actvities has increased in scale and distribution. Carbon dioxide was the first greenhouse gas demonstrated to be increasing in atmospheric concentration with the first conclusive measurements being made in the last half of the 20th century. Prior to the industrial revolution, concentrations were fairly stable at 280ppm. Today, they are around 370ppm, an increase of well over 30%. The atmospheric concentration has a marked seasonal oscillation that is mostly due to the greater extent of landmass in the northern hemisphere (NH) and its vegetation. A greater drawdown of CO2 occurs in the NH spring and summer as plants convert CO2 to plant material through photosynthesis. It is then released again in the fall and winter as the plants decompose.

Top of Page Methane

Methane is an extrememly effective absorber of radiation, though its atmospheric concentration is less than CO2 and its lifetime in the atmosphere is brief (10-12 years), compared to some other greenhouse gases (such as CO2, N2O, CFCs). Methane(CH4) has both natural and anthropogenic sources. It is released as part of the biological processes in low oxygen environments, such as in swamplands or in rice production (at the roots of the plants). Over the last 50 years, human activities such as growing rice, raising cattle, using natural gas and mining coal have added to the atmospheric concentration of methane. Direct atmospheric measurement of atmospheric methane has been possible since the late 1970s and its conentration rose from 1.52 ppmv in 1978 by around 1%/year to 1990, since when there has been little sustained increase. The current atmospheric concentration is ~1.77 ppmv, and there is no scientific consensus on why methane has not risen much since around 1990.

Top of Page Tropospheric Ozone

Ultraviolet radiation and oxygen interact to form ozone in the stratosphere. Existing in a broad band, commonly called the 'ozone layer', a small fraction of this ozone naturally descends to the surface of the Earth. However, during the 20th century, this tropospheric ozone has been supplemented by ozone created by human processes. The exhaust emissions from automobiles and pollution from factories (as well as burning vegetation) leads to greater concentrations of carbon and nitrogen molecules in the lower atmosphere which, when it they are acted on by sunlight, produce ozone. Consequently, ozone has higher concentrations in and around cities than in sparsely populated areas, though there is some transport of ozone downwind of major urban areas. Ozone is an important contributor to photochemical smog. Though the lifetime of ozone is short, and is therefore not well-mixed through the atmosphere, there is a general band of higher ozone concentration during NH spring and summer between 30�N and 50�N resulting from the higher urbanization and industrial activity in this band. Concentrations of ozone have risen by around 30% since the pre-industrial era, and is now considered by the IPCC to be the third most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane. An additional complication of ozone is that it also interacts with and is modulated by concentrations of methane.

Top of Page Nitrous Oxide

Concentrations of nitrous oxide also began to rise at the beginning of the industrial revolution and is understood to be produced by microbial processes in soil and water, including those reactions which occur in fertilizer containing nitrogen. Increasing use of these fertilizers has been made over the last century. Global concentration for N2O in 1998 was 314 ppb, and in addition to agricultural sources for the gas, some industrial processes (fossil fuel-fired power plants, nylon production, nitric acid production and vehicle emissions) also contribute to its atmospheric load.

Top of Page CFCs etc.

CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) have no natural source, but were entirely synthesized for such diverse uses as refrigerants, aerosol propellants and cleaning solvents. Their creation was in 1928 and since then concentrations of CFCs in the atmosphere have been rising. Due to the discovery that they are able to destroy stratospheric ozone, a global effort to halt their production was undertaken and was extremely successful. So much so that levels of the major CFCs are now remaining level or declining. However, their long atmospheric lifetimes determine that some concentration of the CFCs will remain in the atmosphere for over 100 years. Since they are also greenhouse gas, along with such other long-lived synthesized gases as CF4 (carbontatrafuoride), SF6 (sulfurhexafluoride), they are of concern. Another set of synthesized compounds called HFCs (hydrofluorcarbons) are also greenhouse gases, though they are less stable in the atmosphere and therefore have a shorter lifetime and less of an impact as a greenhouse gas.

Top of Page Carbon Monoxide and other reactive gases

Carbon monoxide (CO) is not considered a direct greenhouse gas, mostly because it does not absorb terrestrial thermal IR energy strongly enough. However, CO is able to modulate the production of methane and tropospheric ozone. The Northern Hemisphere contains about twice as much CO as the Southern Hemisphere because as much as half of the global burden of CO is derived from human activity, which is predominantly located in the NH. Due to the spatial variability of CO, it is difficult to ascertain global concentrations, however, it appears as though they were generally increasing until the late 1980s, and have since begun to decline somewhat. One possible explanation is the reduction in vehicle emissions of CO since greater use of catalytic converters has been made.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) also have a small direct impact as greenhouse gases, as well being involved in chemical processes which modulate ozone production. VOCs include non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC), and oxygenated NMHCs (eg. alcohols and organic acids), and their largest source is natural emissions from vegetation. However, there are some anthropogenic sources such as vehicle emissions, fuel production and biomass burning. Though measurement of VOCs is extremely difficult, it is expected that most anthropogenic emissions of these compounds have increased in recent decades.

Top of Page Additional Information

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
World Data Center for Greenhouse Gases
A Paleoclimate perspective on global warming


Originally published at:  http://lwf.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/gases.html#wv