What is the greenhouse effect?

Without the so-called greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor, Earth would be too cold to inhabit. These gases in Earth's atmosphere absorb and emit heat energy, creating the greenhouse effect that keeps our planet's temperature livable.

Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, people have burned vast amounts of coal, petroleum, and other fossil fuels to create heat and power. This releases carbon dioxide, the most plentiful human-produced greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The result: more heat is trapped in Earth's atmosphere instead of radiating out into space.

Measurements collected atop Hawaii’s Mauna Loa and other locations show a steady rise in global carbon dioxide concentrations since 1958. These concentrations have increased by more than 40 percent since preindustrial times.

Diagram shows flows of energy between Earth and space
Diagram of Earth's energy budget. Credit: Image courtesy NASA's ERBE (Earth Radiation Budget Experiment) program.

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