The 'greenhouse effect' is the warming of climate that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from Earth toward space. Certain gases in the atmosphere resemble glass in a greenhouse, allowing sunlight to pass into the 'greenhouse,' but blocking Earth's heat from escaping into space. The gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect include water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxides, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
On Earth, human activities are changing the natural greenhouse. Over the last century the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric CO2. This happens because the coal or oil burning process combines carbon (C) with oxygen (O2) in the air to make CO2. To a lesser extent, the clearing of land for agriculture, industry, and other human activities have increased the concentrations of other greenhouse gases like methane (CH4), and further increased (CO2).
The consequences of changing the natural atmospheric greenhouse are difficult to predict, but certain effects seem likely:
- On average, Earth will become warmer. Some regions may welcome warmer temperatures, but others may not.
- Warmer conditions will probably lead to more evaporation and precipitation overall, but individual regions will vary, some becoming wetter and others dryer.
- A stronger greenhouse effect will probably warm the oceans and partially melt glaciers and other ice, increasing sea level. Ocean water also will expand if it warms, contributing to further sea level rise.
- Meanwhile, some crops and other plants may respond favorably to increased atmospheric CO2, growing more vigorously and using water more efficiently. At the same time, higher temperatures and shifting climate patterns may change the areas where crops grow best and affect the makeup of natural plant communities.