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Question:
What physical or other environmental factors contribute to the increase in the earth's average temperature, through the greenhouse effect?



Replies:
Actually, the greenhouse effect does not just refer to an "increase" in the earth's average temperature - the earth would be a lot colder than it is right now if it were not for greenhouse effects already operating. The main ingredients are the composition of the atmosphere, the kind of light we receive from the sun, and the kind of radiation (due to the earth's current temperature and reflecting properties) the earth returns back from the ground and from the atmosphere into space. The greenhouse effect involves particular molecules in the atmosphere (principally water) that allow light from the sun to reach the surface of the earth, but which absorb a lot of the radiation that the earth returns, because that returned radiation is of much longer wavelength (infrared). As you might guess, getting the details of all this right is rather complicated, particularly as some molecules in the atmosphere that are not very common have a significant greenhouse effect. It is the dramatic increase in those uncommon molecules (carbon dioxide and methane) caused by human activities that is supposed to be causing a temperature rise right now, but getting the calculations right is still difficult.

Arthur Smith



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