June 2021

Exploring the greenhouse effect

This article is the fourth in a series focused on the causes and consequences of a warming planet

The greenhouse effect is critical for life on Earth. A rocky planet like ours, this far from the sun, should be frozen solid and lifeless with an average temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, it should be a big snowball floating in space. But due to the greenhouse effect, Earth’s average temperature is 57 degrees, allowing the planet to support life.

greenhouse plants

As you may suspect, the greenhouse effect gets its name from greenhouses. Greenhouses are made of glass. The glass lets sunlight into the greenhouse but blocks the resulting heat from escaping.

So, even in cold weather, greenhouses stay warm.

So how does the greenhouse effect warm the Earth?  Sunlight passes through the atmosphere and strikes the Earth’s surface. Some of the light is absorbed by the Earth as heat and the rest is reflected back into space. The Earth’s absorbed heat is subsequently radiated back into the atmosphere. If there is nothing to stop it, the heat escapes into space.

But if the atmosphere contains greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases like carbon dioxide, a portion of the Earth’s radiated heat is absorbed by these gases. The absorbed heat is then re-radiated back down to the Earth, warming the Earth’s surface again.

Every time you put on your jacket (or take it off), you are creating your own greenhouse effect. The additional clothing traps body heat next to your body, similar to how greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap the Earth’s heat next to the Earth’s surface.

Another analogy is your bed. Your blankets trap your body heat, keeping you warm at night. Greenhouse gases act like a blanket covering the Earth that traps heat next to the Earth’s surface.

If we get too warm during the day, we can take off our jacket. If we get to warm at night, we can take off one of the blankets. But if the Earth gets too warm, we have to learn to live with it.

Greenhouse gases are like the Earth’s thermostat. Adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is like turning up the thermostat. For example, the atmosphere of Venus consists primarily of carbon dioxide (300 times more than Earth). So the greenhouse effect is very powerful. The average atmospheric temperature on Venus is 872 degrees. Hot enough to melt lead.

We are in no immediate danger of becoming another Venus. But we are in danger of upsetting nature’s thermostat and making the planet warmer and driving irreversible changes in climate.

A listing of USDA and university websites focused on weather and climate can be found on the Ag Decision Maker Outlook page.

Don Hofstrand, retired extension agricultural business specialist, agdm@iastate.edu
Reviewed by Dr. Eugene Takle, retired professor emeritus Iowa State University


Don Hofstrand

retired extension agricultural business specialist
View more from this author
Reviewed by

Dr. Eugene Takle

retired professor emeritus Iowa State University