The enhanced greenhouse effect

  November 15, 2021   Read time 3 min
The enhanced greenhouse effect
The natural greenhouse effect is due to the gases water vapour and carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere in their natural abundances as now on Earth.

The amount of water vapour in our atmosphere depends mostly on the temperature of the surface of the oceans; most of it originates through evaporation from the ocean surface and is not influenced directly by human activity. Carbon dioxide is different. Its amount has changed substantially – by about thirty per cent so far – since the Industrial Revolution, due to human industry and also because of the removal of forests. Future projections are that, in the absence of controlling factors, the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide will accelerate and that its atmospheric concentration will double from its pre-industrial value within the next hundred years.

This increased amount of carbon dioxide is leading to global warming of the Earth’s surface because of its enhanced greenhouse effect. Let us imagine, for instance, that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere suddenly doubled, everything else remaining the same. What would happen to the numbers in the radiation budget presented earlier? The solar radiation budget would not be affected. The greater amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means that the thermal radiation emitted from it will originate on average from a higher and colder level than before (Figure 2.3). The thermal radiation budget will therefore be reduced, the amount of reduction being about 4 watts per square metre (a more precise value is 3.7).

This causes a net imbalance in the overall budget of 4 watts per square metre. More energy is coming in than going out. To restore the balance the surface and lower atmosphere will warm up. If nothing changes apart from the temperature – in other words, the clouds, the water vapour, the ice and snow cover and so on are all the same as before – the temperature change turns out to be about 1.2 ◦C.

In reality, of course, many of these other factors will change, some of them in ways that add to the warming (these are called positive feedbacks), others in ways that might reduce the warming (negative feedbacks). The situation is therefore much more complicated than this simple calculation. These complications will be considered in more detail in Chapter 5. Suffice it to say here that the best estimate at the present time of the increased average temperature of the Earth’s surface if carbon dioxide levels were to be doubled is about twice that of the simple calculation: 2.5 ◦C. As the last chapter explained, for the global average temperature this is a large change. It is this global warming expected to result from the enhanced greenhouse effect that is the cause of current concern.

In reality, of course, many of these other factors will change, some of them in ways that add to the warming (these are called positive feedbacks), others in ways that might reduce the warming (negative feedbacks). The situation is therefore much more complicated than this simple calculation. Suffice it to say here that the best estimate at the present time of the increased average temperature of the Earth’s surface if carbon dioxide levels were to be doubled is about twice that of the simple calculation: 2.5 ◦C. As the last chapter explained, for the global average temperature this is a large change. It is this global warming expected to result from the enhanced greenhouse effect that is the cause of current concern.