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What is the greenhouse effect, and is it affecting our climate?
The greenhouse effect is unquestionably real, and is essential for life on Earth. It is the result of heat absorption by certain gases in the atmosphere (called greenhouse gases because they trap heat) and re- radiation downward of a part of that heat. Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas, followed by carbon dioxide and other trace gases. Without a natural greenhouse effect, the temperature of the Earth would be about zero degrees F (-18°C) instead of its present 57°F (14°C).
However, the concern is not with the fact that we have a greenhouse effect, but it is with the question regarding whether human activities are leading to an enhancement of the greenhouse effect.
Are greenhouse gases increasing?
Human activity has been increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (mostly carbon dioxide from combustion of coal, oil, and gas; plus a few other trace gases). There is no scientific debate on this point. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide (prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution) were about 280 parts per million by volume
(ppmv), and current levels are about 370 ppmv. According to the IPCC
"business as usual" scenario of carbon dioxide increase (IS92a) in the
21st century, we would expect to see a doubling of carbon dioxide over pre-industrial levels around the year 2065.
Is the climate warming?
Global surface temperatures have increased about 0.6°C (plus or minus
0.2°C) since the late-19th century, and about one half degree F (0.2 to
0.3°C) over the past 25 years (the period with the most credible data).
The warming has not been globally uniform. Some areas (including parts of the southeastern U.S.) have cooled. The recent warmth has been greatest over N. America and Eurasia between 40 and 70°N. Warming, assisted by the record El Niсo of 1997-1998, has continued right up to the present.
Linear trends can vary greatly depending on the period over which they are computed. Temperature trends in the lower troposphere (between about
2,500 and 18,000 ft.) from 1979 to the present, the period for which
Satellite Microwave Sounding Unit data exist, are small and may be unrepresentative of longer term trends and trends closer to the surface.
Furthermore, there are small unresolved differences between radiosonde and satellite observations of tropospheric temperatures, though both data sources show slight warming trends. If one calculates trends beginning with the commencement of radiosonde data in the 1950s, there is a slight greater warming in the record due to increases in the 1970s. There are statistical and physical reasons (e.g., short record lengths, the transient differential effects of volcanic activity and El Niсo, and boundary layer effects) for expecting differences between recent trends in surface and lower tropospheric temperatures, but the exact causes for the differences are still under investigation (see National Research
Council report "Reconciling Observations of Global Temperature Change").
An enhanced greenhouse effect is expected to cause cooling in higher parts of the atmosphere because the increased "blanketing" effect in the lower atmosphere holds in more heat. Cooling of the lower stratosphere
(about 30-35,000ft.) since 1979 is shown by both satellite Microwave
Sounding Unit and radiosonde data, but is larger in the radiosonde data.
There has been a general, but not global, tendency toward reduced diurnal temperature range (the difference between high and low daily temperatures) over about 50% of the global land mass since the middle of the 20th century. Cloud cover has increased in many of the areas with reduced diurnal temperature range.
Relatively cool surface and tropospheric temperatures, and a relatively warmer lower stratosphere, were observed in 1992 and 1993, following the
1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. The warming reappeared in 1994. A dramatic global warming, at least partly associated with the record El Niсo, took place in 1998. This warming episode is reflected from the surface to the top of the troposphere.
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