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Greenhouse Gases and the Climate's Groove

Greenhouse Gases and the Climate's Groove

One of the key components of a stable climate is that the energy coming in to our planet from the sun is equal to the amount leaving the Earth.

Humans have thrown off this balance by our emissions of greenhouse gases. Our climate has a "groove", much like Emperor Kuzco from Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, and we are throwing it off.

But what is a greenhouse gas? Why does it throw off our climate's groove? I'll use carbon dioxide (CO2) as an example. CO2 is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels for transportation and electricity generation, and the most important greenhouse gas in our changing climate.

CO2 is a molecule made of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. Because of the way these atoms are connected, CO2 molecules are able to absorb a great deal of the energy that the Earth would otherwise radiate towards space, effectively trapping it. Thus, we call CO2—and other gases such as methane that absorb this heat—greenhouse gases. They allow energy in from the sun, but trap the heat that tries to go back out to space, much like a glass greenhouse where plants are grown.

                                                     Image credit:

                                                     Image credit:

In the past century, stations all over the world have recorded steep increases in the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. Below is an image from the remote Mauna Loa Island, where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has an observing station.

These are all the pieces of the basic principle behind human-caused climate change. CO2 is a known greenhouse gas that traps heat energy in the atmosphere when it would otherwise escape to space. Concentrations of this heat-trapping gas have risen. The logical consequence of increasing greenhouse gas concentration is that temperatures will rise. And this is exactly what scientists have observed:

Yes, humans have thrown off the emperor's (whoops, I mean climate's!) groove. Therefore, it is up to us to do everything we can to fix what we have done. For example, I urge you to consider carpooling whenever you can, turn your heat down and wear a sweatshirt in the house, and make sure that all the lights are off when you leave your home for the day. Other ways to combat climate change include involving others in the climate conversation. This can be as simple as telling your Facebook friends that you read a super cool blog post about greenhouse gases and you'd love for them to check it out! Finally, please reach out to your senators and representatives and urge them to support actions that protect our planet, and to vote against any measures to continue our use of fossil fuels or eliminate important anti-pollution laws and the agencies that enforce them.

I speak for the trees (and the clouds),


Is the Thermostat Broken?

Is the Thermostat Broken?

Satellite data show a cooling trend in the upper atmosphere.  So much for global warming….  Right?

Satellite data show a cooling trend in the upper atmosphere. So much for global warming…. Right?