The Green House Effect



A schematic representation of the exchanges of energy between outer space, the Earth's atmosphere, and the Earth surface. The ability of the atmosphere to capture and recycle energy emitted by the Earth surface is the defining characteristic of the greenhouse effect.




The greenhouse effect is the process in which the emission of infrared radiation by the atmosphere warms a planet’s surface. The name comes from an incorrect analogy with the warming of air inside a greenhouse compared to the air outside the greenhouse. The greenhouse effect was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824 and first investigated quantitatively by Svante in 1896.

The Earth’s average surface temperature of 15 °C (59 °F) is about 33 °C (59 °F) warmer than it would be without the greenhouse effect.]Global Warming, a recent warming of the Earth's lower atmosphere, is believed to be the result of an enhanced greenhouse effect due to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In addition to the Earth, Mars and Venus have greenhouse effects.


Quantum mechanics provides the basis for computing the interactions between molecules and radiation. Most of this interaction occurs when the frequency of the radiation closely matches that of the spectral lines of the molecule, determined by the quantization of the modes of vibration and rotation of the molecule. (The electronic excitations are generally not relevant for infrared radiation, as they require energy larger than that in an infrared photon.)

The width of a spectral line is an important element in understanding its importance for the absorption of radiation. In the Earth’s atmosphere these spectral widths are primarily determined by “pressure broadening”, which is the distortion of the spectrum due to the collision with another molecule. Most of the infrared absorption in the atmosphere can be thought of as occurring while two molecules are colliding. The absorption due to a photon interacting with a lone molecule is relatively small. This three-body aspect of the problem, one photon and two molecules, makes direct quantum mechanical computation for molecules of interest more challenging. Careful laboratory spectroscopic measurements, rather than ab initio quantum mechanical computations, provide the basis for most of the radiative transfer calculations used in studies of the atmosphere.

Discussion of the relative importance of different infrared absorbers is confused by the overlap between the spectral lines due to different gases, widened by pressure broadening. As a result, the absorption due to one gas cannot be thought of as independent of the presence of other gases. One convenient approach is to remove the chosen constituent, leaving all other absorbers, and the temperatures, untouched, and monitoring the infrared radiation escaping to space. The reduction in infrared absorption is then a measure of the importance of that constituent. More precisely, define the greenhouse effect (GE) to be the difference between the infrared radiation that the surface would radiate to space if there were no atmosphere and the actual infrared radiation escaping to space. Then compute the percentage reduction in GE when a constituent is removed. The table below is computed by this method, using a particular 1-dimensional model of the atmosphere. More recent 3D computations lead to similar results.

Gas removed

percent reduction in GE























Green Houses



The term 'greenhouse effect' originally came from the greenhouses used for gardening, but it is a misnomer since greenhouses operate differently. A greenhouse is built of glass. It heats up mainly because the Sun warms the ground inside it and this warms the air in the greenhouse. The air continues to heat because it is confined within the greenhouse, unlike the environment outside the greenhouse where warm air near the surface rises and mixes with cooler air aloft. This can be demonstrated by opening a small window near the roof of a greenhouse: the temperature will drop considerably. It has also been demonstrated experimentally (Wood, 1909): a "greenhouse" built of rock salt (which is transparent to infrared radiation) heats up just as one built of glass does. Greenhouses thus work primarily by preventing convection; the atmospheric greenhouse effect however reduces radiation loss, not convection. It is quite common, however, to find sources that make the erroneous "greenhouse" analogy. Although the primary mechanism for warming greenhouses is the prevention of mixing with the free atmosphere, the radiative properties of the glazing can still be important to commercial growers. With the modern development of new plastic surfaces and glazings for greenhouses, this has permitted construction of greenhouses which selectively control radiation transmittance in order to better control the growing environment.