The greenhouse effect is the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the planet’s surface to a temperature above what it would be without its atmosphere.
If a planet’s atmosphere contains radiatively active gases (i.e., greenhouse gases) the atmosphere will radiate energy in all directions. Part of this radiation is directed towards the surface, warming it. The downward component of this radiation – that is, the strength of the greenhouse effect – will depend on the atmosphere’s temperature and on the amount of greenhouse gases that the atmosphere contains.
On Earth, the atmosphere is warmed by absorption of infrared thermal radiation from the underlying surface, absorption of shorter wavelength radiant energy from the sun, and convective heat fluxes from the surface. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere radiate energy, some of which is directed to the surface and lower atmosphere. The mechanism that produces this difference between the actual surface temperature and the effective temperature is due to the atmosphere and is known as the greenhouse effect.
Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is critical to supporting life. Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming.
The existence of the greenhouse effect was argued for by Joseph Fourier in 1824. The argument and the evidence was further strengthened by Claude Pouillet in 1827 and 1838, and reasoned from experimental observations by John Tyndall in 1859. The effect was more fully quantified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896. However, the term “greenhouse” was not used to refer to this effect by any of these scientists; the term was first used in this way by Nils Gustaf Ekholm in 1901.
In 1917 Alexander Graham Bell wrote “[The unchecked burning of fossil fuels] would have a sort of greenhouse effect”, and “The net result is the greenhouse becomes a sort of hot-house.” Bell went on to also advocate the use of alternate energy sources, such as solar energy.
Earth receives energy from the Sun in the form of ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared radiation. Of the total amount of solar energy available at the top of the atmosphere, about 26% is reflected to space by the atmosphere and clouds and 19% is absorbed by the atmosphere and clouds. Most of the remaining energy is absorbed at the surface of Earth. Because the Earth’s surface is colder than the photosphere of the Sun, it radiates at wavelengths that are much longer than the wavelengths that were absorbed. Most of this thermal radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere, thereby warming it. In addition to the absorption of solar and thermal radiation, the atmosphere further gains heat by sensible and latent heat fluxes from the surface. The atmosphere radiates energy both upwards and downwards; the part radiated downwards is absorbed by the surface of Earth. This leads to a higher equilibrium temperature than if the atmosphere were absent.