The Greenhouse Effect: Mythological Beast or Real Monster in Our Midst

The greenhouse effect results from dirt in the middle of the Earth's atmospheric infrared window. This dirt comes from many sources, such as atmospheric trace gases, naturally occurring particulate matter, microscopic space debris, evaporated water vapor, and our own contributions, Carbon Dioxide and CFC's! Carbon Dioxide occurs naturally, but we add several billion tons each year! It is a big sky, but even it is limited in it's holding capacity, especially in CFC's. CFC's, or Chlorofluorocarbons, as they are more commonly known, are all ours. We are mostly the only source. Actually there are some naturally occurring CFC's, some 3 parts in a trillion. That means that for every trillion (that's 1 million times 1 million), there are 3 parts that are naturally occurring CFC's. Our little human contribution each year brings us up to several parts in a million! That's only a million times more, so what's all the fuss about? Exactly what is this greenhouse effect anyway?

The greenhouse effect name itself conjures up horrible images of the Earth warming, up, cataclysmic destruction of the polar ice caps, overheating of the atmosphere, rising sea levels, etc., etc., etc. Well, we need the greenhouse effect! It isn't a bad thing! It is what keeps us alive! The sun's rays reach Earth and are mostly reflected, but the Earth absorbs some of them. The absorbed energy warms the Earth, and radiates a lot of that heat back to space as infrared energy. This heats some of the materials in the atmosphere, and stratosphere, and they reflect some more back to Earth. That balanced ratio of heat, sent and returned, keeps us within our livable temperature range. If we mess up this materials balance to the point where too much is reflected, we all start looking like potential walking ham roasts. Another related subject, that of depleted ozone layers, could cause the opposite effect, and make us all icicles.

I believe that we do have a serious problem with the greenhouse effect, and it's possible that if we allow this upward spiral of overburdening the upper atmospheres, we will make the Earth unlivable. I do not believe the sky is falling - yet - but we do need to take steps to reduce emissions and better manage our environment to stay alive and healthy on mother Earth.

In this paper, I will only point out the dangers, the causes, and where there is available, verifiable evidence to support it, the source of those. Evidence will come from empirical tests, government and collegiate studies, as well as statistical data from several agencies. If we do keep up with our massive pollution efforts as we now are, we may have pieces of the sky falling on us, and soon.

Let us start with one of the myths being displaced - there is no greenhouse effect - adversely affecting the Earth, or otherwise! A greenhouse effect would be one that actually keeps the plants or climate inside of it warmer, because the glass or plastic covering lets solar heat in, but no solar warmed or other heated air is allowed to leave! Any infrared energy is reflected away from the glass, and has no effect on the inside of the greenhouse. Here on Earth, the exact opposite effect is what allows Earth to enjoy a livable climate. The solar rays warm the Earth's land and water surfaces, some of this is absorbed, and some reflected back to the outer atmosphere. The reflected energy is infrared, and some of it is also absorbed, but by the water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gases naturally occurring in the Earth's atmospheric layer. Now, more is reflected back to Earth, and so on, in a continuing cycle, that leaves Earth with a fairly balanced, if somewhat unsteady, natural climate control system. Rather than a greenhouse effect, we should be thinking of it as a simple heating system, with a delicate balance! In the interest of this paper, we will continue to call this phenomenon of change we see Earth undergoing, the greenhouse effect, though the closest it could come in reality would be an enhanced greenhouse effect. Words, after all, are just what ever we make them, and their meaning is simply our choice of meaning at the time of their use. To keep with familiar terms, making understanding easier, so we will use the common vernacular in this paper, rather than quibble about proper terminology.

To understand what our human impact is on this enhanced greenhouse effect, and what the causal effects of our interference and pollution are, let me give one more background explanation. One of the best examples of how this effect affects Earth, is to look to our neighboring planets, specifically Venus and Pluto. The have some of the most diverse applications of this effect, and show the extremes Earth could suffer if the balance of the natural effect, or at least, one such as Earth enjoys is radically upset. Pluto has almost no atmospheric layer at all, thus having no real reflective or absorptive quality to that atmosphere that allows the balance of heating and cooling so necessary to life. Pluto has a mean surface temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, the coldest planet in the solar system, and just barely above the temperature of empty space itself. For comparison, the coldest it ever gets on Earth is 127 degrees Fahrenheit below zero (that's in Antarctica, and there isn't much tourism there because of it!). Venus, on the other hand, has what has been described as a runaway greenhouse effect, having very thick carbon dioxide layers that trap and keep almost all of the solar radiation heating the surface to unbearable conditions. Venus' average mean temperature is around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. (Britannica, 470)

As this paper is of causal effects and not a treatise on caused effects or cures, those parts of this enhanced greenhouse effect will have to be researched by the reader. Perhaps that research will be the one that helps stop the enhanced part, and brings us back to even keel with our planet's climate. After all, it is ordinary people's revelations and understanding that changes most situations, not those of the scientists and think tank experts.

We in America enjoy a great deal of freedom, and receive a large portion of help, from our government. So, in keeping with this spirit of the government helping, here is the first causal explanation of the enhanced greenhouse effect. According to the U.S. Government's Environmental Protection Agency, this is a simplified radiative equilibrium model of the greenhouse effect is that the temperature of the earth is determined by the amount of incoming solar radiation that reaches and heats its surface.

"The amount of incoming solar radiation received at the Earth's surface is given by the simple formula, pi*R^2*S*(1-A), where R is the radius of the earth; S is the solar constant; and A is the albedo of the earth. (The albedo of the earth is approximately 33%.) This amount of incoming solar radiation reaches the surface of the earth and heats it to a temperature, called the effective temperature, Te. Supposing that the earth emits heat like a blackbody, each square meter of the earth's surface radiates infrared radiation according to the stefan-Boltzmann law, which states that the emission of infrared radiation is equal to o*Te^4, where o is the the Stefan-Boltzmann constant. Hence, the total amount of infrared radiation emitted by the earth's surface is equal to 4*pi*R^2*o*Te^4. Since there is a balance between the incoming solar radiation reaching the surface and the outgoing infrared radiation emitted at the surface, we may equate these two terms and solve for the effective temperture, Te. It is easy to find that Te=(S*(1-A)/40)^(1/4) and to get the earth Te=253K. (GEOSR) Now, remember, that is the simplified explanation put out by the government for the layman to understand!

Now then, we have a simple, from the government's standpoint, of what the cause is, and should feel much more capable of understanding the problem. If you still don't have a concrete grasp on the problem from that explanation, we can refer to some simpler sources, that the average person can actually understand.

One of the current authors on this subject is John Gribbon. Mr. Gribbon was an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, before becoming one of the better read full-time science writers. A quote from one of his many books let's us see a simple, easy to understand explanation, much in contrast to the government's.

"The simplest way to get a first impression of how serious the carbon dioxide problem may be is to assume that economic activity and energy use in the world continue to develop without any thought being given to the question of carbon dioxide This is the business as usual scenario - but unfortunately, nobody today can be certain what business as usual actually means". (Gribbin, 209) "Some theorists argue that man-made dust in the air is blocking heat from the sun and causing the Earth below to cool. Others say that the buildup of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (that's the stuff we make!) is trapping the heat that would otherwise be lost to space, causing the earth to warm". (Gribbin, 78)

Now here, as with the governmental model, we have a learned author, a scientist of renown, a futurologist, an astrophysicist, and author of several scholarly tomes holding information as to the causes of the greenhouse effect. And - he gives both sides of every argument! Another highly enlightening source. Mr. Gribbon gives easily understood explanations, then tends to refute himself. Maybe this is why a real understanding of the effect, and causes, is so hard for the average person to grasp.

Another learned source, Michael Oppenheimer, is the Albert G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and International Affairs at Princeton University. The author of over 60 books on environmental issues, he along with environmental activist Robert Boyle, produced a book on this subject, that is actually easy to read and glean an understanding from. Here is a causal statement from that work:

"After World War II, oil supplanted coal as the world's dominant energy source. Despite their dominance, fossil fuels - particularly coal and oil - are fatally flawed, and these flaws may be about to precipitate the next energy shift. For more than a century, human beings have largely tolerated malodorous, unhealthful, and destructive levels of air pollution from fuel combustion. Yet these may come to seem like relatively trivial problems when compared with the potential consequences of dramatically increased levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses." (Oppenheimer, 23) "The release of carbon dioxide via fossil-fuel burning can be viewed as an artificially accelerated version of the natural process whereby carbon dioxide moves from atmosphere, to plants, and back to the atmosphere. The difficulty is the timetable, whereas human intervention through fossil-fuel combustion is transferring this sedimentary carbon into the atmosphere in just a few centuries. The part of the natural cycle that removes it from the atmosphere very slowly, can't keep pace with this artificially accelerated cycle." (Oppenheimer, 24) "Chloroflourocarbons have got to go, in order to protect the ozone layer and to stabilize the climate. Care must be taken to ensure that ozone friendly substitutes are also greenhouse benign, so they do not detract from one problem, only to add to another. (Boyle, 181)

Here, with these two authors, we see our first real explanation of what the causes of this problem are, and how, in our business-as-usual way, we have ignored it, in order to better supply our greed, rather than just our needs.

Here, from a study by the Offices of Policy and Resources Management, in Washington, D.C., we see an even simpler layout of the major causal property of this effect.

"The greenhouse theory assumes that, holding everything else constant, altering the composition of the atmosphere by adding large quantities of CO2 and other greenhouse gases will warm the Earth. While the physical laws underlying the theory are well established and straightforward, the assumption that all else will remain constant is not reasonable. The global climatic system is extremely complex. It consists of many interrelated components that, in themselves, are only partially understood. Changing one of these components - in this case, increasing the quantity of atmospheric greenhouse gases - will undoubtedly have repercussions throughout the natural systems that determine global climate". (EPA, 1-3)

Here, we have another study, by the government, completely in agreement with civilian authors, such as Oppenheimer and Boyle, and in understandable terms, explaining that the main cause of the enhanced greenhouse effect is that of carbon dioxide and CFC's, in larger than naturally occurring numbers.

Statistics is the science of collecting and analyzing data for making decisions or for understanding populations or phenomena. It has also been said that statistics is the best place to tell lies that support your other lies, that nobody believes without proof! So, you simply do some statistics and add some proof! Now that isn't always the case, but the old clich "figures don't always lie, but liars always figure!" causes some concern for statistics as a sole source for a causal argument. The statistics from the following, however, come from a well-known, and apparently respected source, by the number of academic honors he enjoys. Robert H. Boyle, a member of the Audubon Society's climatic studies group, political activist, and a previously reference author, has these words derived from his and other groups' studies published within the prestigious Audubon Magazine's pages.

"You're getting warmer, and so is the Earth. James Hansen warns that in the next 100 years our planet could get as hot as it was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared. Busloads of excited tourists disembark every day outside Tom's Restaurant at 2880 Broadway in Manhattan. They have come to render homage to the greasy spoon of Seinfeld sitcom fame, and they are absolutely unaware of an infinitely more important program under way upstairs on the seventh floor. There, James E. Hansen, chief of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor of geological sciences at Columbia University, leads a team of scientists assessing the climatic-and possibly climactic-fate of this planet as it spins into the third millennium. Aside from the receding threat of nuclear war, no issue is more vital than the one occupying Jim Hansen and his Goddard group: climate change, popularly known as the greenhouse effect, with its potentially devastating impacts on nature and civilization. At the current rate of global warming, and as envisioned by climatologists, life on earth is hurtling toward conditions never before experienced. By the year 2050only as far in the future, after all, as 1950 is in the past-the global temperature could be 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it is now. It has not been that hot for 200,000 years, a time well before modern humans evolved. By 2075, a 5-degree jump would make the planet its hottest in 4 million years, and by the end of the coming century the earth could be as hot as it was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs disappeared. Rapid heating on this scale will change the very face of the planet and cause chaos for the global environment, the economy, and politics. Glaciers will melt, and as seas heat and expand, the ocean will rise, drowning low-lying island nations and coastlines. Say sayonara to the Maldives, the Pacific atolls, Bangladesh, the Nile River delta, and much of the East and Gulf coasts of the United States. Tens of millions of people will be forced to move, and move again, in a kind of endless caravan, bearing conflict and disease. Adapted to specific climate zones, plants and animals will be hard pressed to move north; climate zones could shift 400 miles north by the end of the next century-far faster than trees and other plants spread after the retreat of the last glacier-and many species will become extinct. Old forests will burn, farmland will succumb to drought, and floods will increase." (Boyle)

To summarize, the earth is suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning, with the same results as there would be if it were you or I. We would slowly die from lack of breathable air, and from our bodies being unable to regulate it's heat and processes. There are several other, tangible reason that cause the enhanced greenhouse effect, but these are evidence of the major offender, modern society Research, learn, investigate, do more than others, do your part, and we too can be a causal effect. That effect can be that of change, for the better, for us all.

As an experiment to better understand the causes of the greenhouse effect, both good and bad, do this experiment. Take two identical glasses of cold water, put 5 ice cubes in each, wrap just one in a plastic bag (seal it, this is your greenhouse glass), and leave both in the sun for one hour. Now, after the hour of identical exposure, measure the temperature in each glass! Now, you will understand all the foregoing text much better.

Bibliography:

  • Boyle, Robert H.. You're Getting Warmer.... Audubon Magazine. November December 1999 http://magazine.audubon.org/global.html
  • Boyle, Robert Hand Oppenheimer, Michael . Dead Heat: The Race Against the Greenhouse Effect. New York: Basic Books, Inc.. 1990
  • "Greenhouse Effect". The New Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. 1997
  • Gribbon, John. Future Weather and the Greenhouse Effect. New York: Delacorte Press. 1982
  • Oppenheimer, Michael and Boyle, Robert H.. Dead Heat: The Race Against the Greenhouse Effect. New York: Basic Books, Inc.. 1990
  • United States. Center for Earth Observing and Space Research. Greenhouse Effect & Enhanced Greenhouse Effect (GEOSR). www.science.gmu.edu/~zli/ghe.html
  • United States. Dept. of Environmental Protection Agency. Strategic Studies Staff, Office of Policy Analysis. Office of Policy and Resources Management. Can We Delay A Greenhouse Effect? . Washington: GPO. 1983