Greenhouse effect

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Greenhouse gases allow sunlight to pass through the atmosphere, heating the planet, but then absorb and re-radiate the infrared radiation (heat) the planet emits
Quantitative analysis: Energy flows between space, the atmosphere, and Earth's surface, with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere absorbing and emitting radiant heat, affecting Earth's energy balance. Data as of 2007.

The greenhouse effect occurs when greenhouse gases in a planet's atmosphere trap some of the heat radiated from the planet's surface. A planet is warmed by absorbing light from its host star and cooled by radiating energy into space. The warm surface of a planet emits infrared thermal radiation. Greenhouse gases absorb some of that radiation, reducing the amount of energy that escapes into space. This reduction in planetary cooling raises the planet's average surface temperature. Adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere increases the warming effect.

The Earth's average surface temperature would be about −18 °C (−0.4 °F) without the greenhouse effect,[1][2] compared to Earth's 20th century average of about 14 °C (57 °F), or a more recent average of about 15 °C (59 °F).[3][4] In addition to naturally present greenhouse gases, burning of fossil fuels has increased amounts of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere.[5][6] As a result, global warming of about 1.2 °C (2.2 °F) has occurred since the industrial revolution,[7] accelerating to a rate of 0.18 °C (0.32 °F) per decade more recently.[8]

Greenhouse gases work by being transparent to wavelengths of radiation emitted by a star like the Sun, but absorbing wavelengths of radiation emitted by planets like the Earth. The wavelengths differ because matter radiates energy at a wavelength related to its temperature. The Sun is about 5,500 °C (9,900 °F), so it emits most of its energy as shortwave radiation in near infrared and visible wavelengths (as sunlight). The Earth's surface temperatures are much lower, so it emits longwave thermal infrared radiation (radiated heat).[6]

The term greenhouse effect comes from an analogy to greenhouses. Both greenhouses and the greenhouse effect work by retaining heat from sunlight, but the way they do so differs. Heat is transferred into and through the air by radiation, conduction, and convection. Greenhouses mainly retain heat by blocking convection (the movement of air).[9][10] The greenhouse effect retains heat by restricting the flow of radiation through the air and into space.


The existence of the greenhouse effect, while not named as such, was proposed by Joseph Fourier in 1824.[11] The argument and the evidence were further strengthened by Claude Pouillet in 1827 and 1838. In 1856 Eunice Newton Foote demonstrated that the warming effect of the sun is greater for air with water vapour than for dry air, and the effect is even greater with carbon dioxide. She concluded that "An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature..."[12][13]

John Tyndall was the first to measure the infrared absorption and emission of various gases and vapors. From 1859 onwards, he showed that the effect was due to a very small proportion of the atmosphere, with the main gases having no effect, and was largely due to water vapor, though small percentages of hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide had a significant effect.[14] The effect was more fully quantified by Svante Arrhenius in 1896, who made the first quantitative prediction of global warming due to a hypothetical doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide.[15] However, the term "greenhouse" was not used to refer to this effect by any of these scientists; the term was first used in this way by Nils Gustaf Ekholm in 1901.[16][17]

The greenhouse effect and its impact on climate were succinctly described in this 1912 Popular Mechanics article meant for reading by the general public.


How CO2 causes the greenhouse effect.

The greenhouse effect is defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as follows:

The infrared radiative effect of all infrared-absorbing constituents in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases (GHGs), clouds, and some aerosols absorb terrestrial radiation emitted by the Earth's surface and elsewhere in the atmosphere. These substances emit infrared radiation in all directions, but, everything else being equal, the net amount emitted to space is normally less than would have been emitted in the absence of these absorbers because of the decline of temperature with altitude in the troposphere and the consequent weakening of emission. An increase in the concentration of GHGs increases the magnitude of this effect; the difference is sometimes called the enhanced greenhouse effect. The change in a GHG concentration because of anthropogenic emissions contributes to an instantaneous radiative forcing. Earth's surface temperature and troposphere warm in response to this forcing, gradually restoring the radiative balance at the top of the atmosphere.[18]: AVII-28 


Longwave vs. shortwave radiation

Shortwave radiation from the Sun and longwave radiation from Earth

Longwave radiation is radiation emitted by the Earth's surface, the atmosphere and clouds. It is also known as thermal infrared or terrestrial radiation and is to be distinguished from the near infrared shortwave radiation that is part of the solar spectrum.[18]: 2251 

Incoming radiation

The solar radiation spectrum for direct light at both the top of Earth's atmosphere and at sea level

Earth receives energy from the Sun in the form of shortwave ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared radiation. The atmosphere and clouds reflect about 23% and absorb 23%. The surface reflects 7% and absorbs 48%.[19] Overall, Earth absorbs about 240 W/m2 from sunlight.[20]: 934 

Outgoing radiation

Outgoing radiation and greenhouse effect as a function of frequency

Outgoing longwave radiation is the thermal radiation that is emitted to space from the top of Earth's atmosphere.

The greenhouse effect can be seen in plots of Earth's outgoing longwave radiation as a function of frequency (or wavelength). The area between the spectral curve for thermal radiation emitted by Earth's surface and the curve for outgoing thermal radiation indicates the size of the greenhouse effect. Different substances are responsible for reducing the flux reaching space at different different frequencies; for some frequencies, multiple substances play a role.[21] Carbon dioxide is understood to be responsible for the dip in outgoing radiation (and associated rise in the greenhouse effect) at around 667 cm−1 (equivalent to a wavelength of 15 microns).[22]

Radiative balance

The temperature of a planet depends on the balance between incoming radiation and outgoing radiation. Comparing incoming radiation to outgoing radiation can tell us if a planet is warming or cooling. If the rate at which energy leaves is smaller than the rate at which it arrives, the planet will warm. If the rate at which energy leaves is greater than the rate at which it arrives, the planet will cool. A planet will tend towards a state of radiative equilibrium, in which the power of outgoing radiation equals the power of absorbed incoming radiation.[23]

For Earth overall, the power of incoming radiation was exceeding the power of outgoing radiation by about 0.7 W/m2 as of around 2015, indicating radiative warming.[20]: 934 

Effective temperature

The power of outgoing thermal radiation emitted by a planet can be characterized by an effective radiation emission temperature. The effective temperature is the temperature that a planet radiating as an ideal blackbody with a uniform temperature would need to have in order to radiate the same amount of energy.

For a planet in radiative equilibrium, the effective temperature depends on the amount of sunlight entering the atmosphere and the amount reflected. Earth reflects about 30% of the incoming sunlight.[24][25]

The effective temperature of Earth is about −18 °C (0 °F).[26][27]

Earth's actual surface temperature of approximately 15 °C (59 °F)[4][28] is 33 °C (59 °F) warmer than Earth's effective temperature.


Greenhouse gases absorb and emit thermal radiation, resulting in the amount of thermal radiation reaching space being 40 percent (159 W/m2) less than what is emitted by Earth's surface. Data as of 2014.

The amount of outgoing thermal radiation Earth emits to space is 239 W/m2. Yet, the amount emitted by the surface is about 398 W/m2.[20]: 934  The difference between these values is how the IPCC reports the Earth's current greenhouse effect, G = 159 W/m2.[20]: 968 

The normalized greenhouse effect, , is defined as the ratio of G to how much longwave radiation is emitted by the Earth's surface. Therefore, = 159 W/m2 / 398 W/m2 = 0.40.[20]: 968 [29][30]

To explain the greenhouse effect, one must explain why less thermal radiation is emitted to space than what leaves the surface. One tool for explaining this is the idealized greenhouse model. However, that model is a simplification.

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) in dense air near the surface intercept most of the thermal radiation emitted by the warm surface. GHGs in sparse air at higher altitudes emit thermal radiation to space, at a lower rate than surface emissions, due to the lower temperature. The temperatures at different altitudes are connected via the environmental lapse rate.

In reality, the atmosphere near the Earth's surface is largely opaque to thermal radiation and most heat loss from the surface is by convection. However radiative energy losses become increasingly important higher in the atmosphere, largely because of the decreasing concentration of water vapor, an important greenhouse gas. Rather than thinking of thermal radiation headed to space as coming from the surface itself, it is more realistic to think of this outgoing radiation as being emitted by a layer in the mid-troposphere, which is effectively coupled to the surface by a lapse rate. The difference in temperature between these two locations explains the difference between surface emissions and emissions to space, i.e., it explains the greenhouse effect.[31]

A simple picture also assumes a steady state, but in the real world, the diurnal cycle, as well as the seasonal cycle and weather disturbances, complicate matters. Solar heating applies only during daytime. At night the atmosphere cools somewhat, but not greatly because the thermal inertia of the climate system resists changes both day and night, as well as for longer periods.[32] Diurnal temperature changes decrease with height in the atmosphere.

Within the region where radiative effects are important, the description given by the idealized greenhouse model becomes realistic. Earth's surface radiates long-wavelength, infrared heat in the range of 4–100 μm.[33] At these wavelengths, greenhouse gases that were largely transparent to incoming solar radiation are more absorbent.[33] Each layer of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases absorbs some of the infrared thermal radiation being radiated upwards from lower layers. It also emits thermal radiation in all directions, both upwards and downwards; in equilibrium (by definition) the same amount as it has absorbed. This results in less radiative heat loss and more warmth below. Increasing the concentration of the gases increases the amount of absorption and emission, and thereby causing more heat to be retained at the surface and in the layers below.[27]

Atmospheric components

Greenhouse gases

refer to caption and adjacent text
Atmospheric absorption and scattering at different wavelengths of electromagnetic waves. The largest absorption band of carbon dioxide is not far from the maximum in the thermal emission from ground, and it partly closes the window of transparency of water—explaining carbon dioxide's major heat-trapping effect.

A greenhouse gas (GHG) is a gas capable of trapping heat by impeding the flow of infrared thermal radiation out of a planet's atmosphere. Greenhouse gases contribute most of the greenhouse effect in Earth's energy budget.

Greenhouse gases—including most diatomic gases with two different atoms (such as carbon monoxide, CO) and all gases with three or more atoms—are able to absorb and emit infrared radiation at specific wavelengths,[34] since their intramolecular vibrations modify the molecular dipole moment (see Infrared spectroscopy). Though more than 99% of the dry atmosphere is IR transparent (because the main constituents—N
, O
, and Ar—have a dipole moment of zero even during vibration and are thus not able to independently absorb or emit infrared radiation), intermolecular elastic collisions cause the energy absorbed and emitted by the greenhouse gases to be shared with the other non-IR-active gases. Lastly as a weaker effect, all gases can absorb and emit a relatively minor amount of broadband IR via inelastic collisions.[35]

Greenhouse gases can be divided into two types, direct and indirect. Gases that can directly absorb infrared thermal radiation are direct greenhouse gases, e.g., water vapor, carbon dioxide and ozone. The molecules of these gases can directly absorb infrared thermal radiation at certain ranges of wavelength. Some gases are indirect greenhouse gases, as they do not absorb thermal radiation directly or significantly, but are capable of producing other greenhouse gases. For example, methane plays an important role in producing tropospheric ozone and formation of more carbon dioxide.[36] NOx[37] and CO[38] can also produce tropospheric ozone and carbon dioxide through photochemical processes.

Atmospheric gases only absorb some wavelengths of energy but are transparent to others. The absorption patterns of water vapor (blue peaks) and carbon dioxide (pink peaks) overlap in some wavelengths.(Illustration NASA, Robert Rohde)[39]
Longwave-infrared absorption coefficients of water vapor and carbon dioxide. For wavelengths near 15-microns, CO2 is a much stronger absorber than water vapor.

By their percentage contribution to the overall greenhouse effect on Earth, the four major greenhouse gases are:[40][41]

It is not practical to assign a specific percentage to each gas because the absorption and emission bands of the gases overlap (hence the ranges given above). A water molecule only stays in the atmosphere for an average 8 to 10 days, which corresponds with high variability in the contribution from clouds and humidity at any particular time and location.[43]: 1–41 

There are other influential gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect, including nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).[43]: AVII-60  These gases are mostly produced through human activities, thus they have played important parts in climate change.

Concentration change of greenhouse gases from 1750 to 2019[44] (ppm: parts per million; ppb: parts per billion):

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2), 278.3 to 409.9 ppm, up 47%;
  • Methane (CH4), 729.2 to 1866.3 ppb, up 156%;
  • Nitrous oxide (N2O), 270.1 to 332.1 ppb, up 23%.

The global warming potential (GWP) of a greenhouse gas is a measure of how much large a climate impact that gas has when added to the atmosphere. GWP is calculated by quantifying the lifetime and the efficiency of greenhouse effect of the gas. Typically, nitrous oxide has a lifetime of about 121 years, and over 270 times higher GWP than carbon dioxide for 20-year time span. Sulfur hexafluoride has a lifetime of over 3000 years and 25000 times higher GWP than carbon dioxide.[44]


Clouds play an important part in global radiative balance and thin cirrus clouds have some greenhouse effects. They can absorb and emit infrared radiation and thus affect the radiative properties of the atmosphere.[45] Clouds include liquid clouds, mixed-phase clouds and ice clouds. Liquid clouds are low clouds and have negative radiative forcing. Mixed-phase clouds are clouds coexisted with both liquid water and solid ice at subfreezing temperatures and their radiative properties (optical depth or optical thickness) are substantially influenced by the liquid content. Ice clouds are high clouds and their radiative forcing depends on the ice crystal number concentration, cloud thickness and ice water content.

The radiative properties of liquid clouds depend strongly on cloud microphysical properties, such as cloud liquid water content and cloud drop size distribution. The liquid clouds with higher liquid water content and smaller water droplets will have a stronger negative radiative forcing. The cloud liquid contents are usually related to the surface and atmospheric circulations. Over the warm ocean, the atmosphere is usually rich with water vapor and thus the liquid clouds contain higher liquid water content. When the moist air flows converge in the clouds and generate strong updrafts, the water content can be much higher. Aerosols will influence the cloud drop size distribution. For example, in the polluted industrial regions with lots of aerosols, the water droplets in liquid clouds are often small.

The mixed phase clouds have negative radiative forcing. The radiative forcing of mix-phase clouds has a larger uncertainty than liquid clouds. One reason is that the microphysics are much more complicated because the coexistence of both liquid and solid water. For example, Wegener–Bergeron–Findeisen process can deplete large amounts of water droplets and enlarge small ice crystals to large ones in a short period of time. Hallett-Mossop process[46] will shatter the liquid droplets in the collision with large ice crystals and freeze into a lot of small ice splinters. The cloud radiative properties can change dramatically during these processes because small ice crystals can reflect much more sun lights and generate larger negative radiative forcing, compared with large water droplets.

Cirrus clouds can either enhance or reduce the greenhouse effects, depending on the cloud thickness.[47] Thin cirrus is usually considered to have positive radiative forcing and thick cirrus has negative radiative forcing.[48] Ice water content and ice size distribution also determines cirrus radiative properties. The larger ice water content is, the more cooling effects cirrus have. When cloud ice water contents are the same, cirrus with more smaller ice crystals have larger cooling effects, compared with cirrus with fewer larger ice crystals. Some scientists suggest doing some cirrus seeding into thin cirrus clouds in order to decrease the size of ice crystals and thus reduce their greenhouse effects, but some other studies doubt its efficiency and think it would be useless to fight with global warming.[49]


Atmospheric aerosols are typically defined as suspensions of liquid, solid, or mixed particles with various chemical and physical properties,[50] which play a really important role in modulating earth energy budget that will further cause climate change. There are two major sources of the atmospheric aerosols, one is natural sources, and the other is anthropogenic sources. For example, desert dust, sea salt, volcanic ash, volatile organic compounds (VOC) from vegetation and smoke from forest fire are some of the important natural sources of aerosols. For the aerosols that are generated from human activities, such as fossil fuel burning, deforestation fires, and burning of agricultural waste, are considered as anthropogenic aerosols. The amount of anthropogenic aerosols has been dramatically increases since preindustrial times, which is considered as a major contribution to the global air pollution. Since these aerosols have different chemical composition and physical properties, they can produce different Radiative forcing effect to warm or cool the global climate.

Impact of atmospheric aerosols on climate can be classified as direct or indirect with respect to radiative forcing of the climate system. Aerosols can directly scatter and absorb solar and infrared radiance in the atmosphere, hence it has a direct radiative forcing to the global climate system. Aerosols can also act as cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) to form clouds, resulting in changing the formation and precipitation efficiency of liquid water, ice and mixed phase clouds, thereby causing an indirect radiative forcing associated with these changes in cloud properties.[51][52]

Aerosols that mainly scatter solar radiation can reflect solar radiation back to space, which will cause cooling effect to the global climate. All of the atmospheric aerosols have such capability to scatter incoming solar radiation. But only a few types of aerosols can absorb solar radiation, such as Black carbon (BC), organic carbon (OC) and mineral dust, which can induce non negligible warming effect to the Earth atmosphere.[53] The emission of black carbon is really large in the developing countries, such as China and India, and this increase trend is still expected to continue. Black carbon can be transported over long distances, and mixed with other aerosols along the way.The solar-absorption efficiency has positive correlation with the ratio of black carbon to sulphate, thus people should focus both on the black carbon emissions and the atmospheric ratio of carbon to sulphate.[54] Particle size and mixing ratio can not only determine the absorption efficiency of BC, but also affect the lifetime of BC. The surface albedo of the surfaces covered by snow or ice could be reduced due to the deposition of these kinds of absorbing aerosol, which will also cause heating effect.[55] The heating effect from black carbon at high elevations is just important as carbon dioxide in the melting of snowpacks and glaciers.[56] In addition to these absorbing aerosols, it is found that the stratospheric aerosol can also induce strong local warming effect by increasing long wave radiation to the surface and reducing the outgoing longwave radiation.[57]

Addressing misconceptions

Earth's overall heat flow. Heat (net energy) always flows from warmer to cooler. This heat flow diagram is equivalent to NASA's earth energy budget diagram. Data is from 2009.

Informal descriptions of the greenhouse effect can lead to misunderstandings about how the greenhouse effect functions and raises temperatures. Contrary to what some might think:

  • Greenhouse gases do not direct heat to the planet’s surface. Radiation heat transfer is the net energy flow after the flows of radiative energy in both directions have been taken into account.[58] Radiation heat transfer occurs in the direction from the surface to the atmosphere and space.[6] While greenhouse gases exchange thermal radiation with the surface, this is part of the normal process of radiation heat transfer,[59] and simply reduces the upward radiative heat flow—the rate of cooling.[60]
  • Greenhouse gases do not directly warm the air. Greenhouse gases emit more thermal radiation than they absorb, and have a net cooling effect on air.[61]: 139 [62]
  • Greenhouse gases do not "re-emit" photons after they have been absorbed. Absorption and emission of thermal radiation are independent processes. Greenhouse gases absorb radiation, distributing the acquired energy to the surrounding air as thermal energy. As a separate process, greenhouse gases emit thermal radiation, at a rate determined by the air temperature, removing thermal energy from the air.[60]

Role in climate change

Earth's rate of heating (graph) is a result of factors which include the enhanced greenhouse effect.[63]

Strengthening of the greenhouse effect through human activities is known as the enhanced (or anthropogenic) greenhouse effect.[64] As well as being inferred from measurements by ARGO, CERES and other instruments throughout the 21st century,[43]: 7–17  this increase in radiative forcing from human activity has been observed directly,[65][66] and is attributable mainly to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.[67] According to the 2014 Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers, have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to have been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century'".[68]

The Keeling Curve of atmospheric CO2 abundance.

CO2 is produced by fossil fuel burning and other activities such as cement production and tropical deforestation.[69] Measurements of CO2 from the Mauna Loa Observatory show that concentrations have increased from about 313 parts per million (ppm)[70] in 1960, passing the 400 ppm milestone in 2013.[71] The current observed amount of CO2 exceeds the geological record maxima (≈300 ppm) from ice core data.[72] The effect of combustion-produced carbon dioxide on the global climate, a special case of the greenhouse effect first described in 1896 by Svante Arrhenius, has also been called the Callendar effect.

Over the past 800,000 years,[73] ice core data shows that carbon dioxide has varied from values as low as 180 ppm to the pre-industrial level of 270 ppm.[74] Paleoclimatologists consider variations in carbon dioxide concentration to be a fundamental factor influencing climate variations over this time scale.[75][76]

Real greenhouses

The "greenhouse effect" of the atmosphere is named by analogy to greenhouses which become warmer in sunlight. However, a greenhouse is not primarily warmed by the "greenhouse effect".[77] "Greenhouse effect" is actually a misnomer since heating in the usual greenhouse is due to the reduction of convection,[78][79] while the "greenhouse effect" works by preventing absorbed heat from leaving a planet through radiative transfer.[5]

A greenhouse is built of any material that passes sunlight: usually glass or plastic. The sun warms the ground and contents inside just like the outside, and these then warm the air. Outside, the warm air near the surface rises and mixes with cooler air aloft, keeping the temperature lower than inside, where the air continues to heat up because it is confined within the greenhouse. This can be demonstrated by opening a small window near the roof of a greenhouse: the temperature will drop considerably. It was demonstrated experimentally (R. W. Wood, 1909) that a (not heated) "greenhouse" with a cover of rock salt (which is transparent to infrared) heats up an enclosure similarly to one with a glass cover.[80] Thus greenhouses work primarily by preventing convective cooling.[79]

Heated greenhouses are yet another matter: as they have an internal source of heating, it is desirable to minimize the amount of heat leaking out by radiative cooling. This can be done through the use of adequate glazing.[81]

It is possible in theory to build a greenhouse that lowers its thermal emissivity during dark hours;[82] such a greenhouse would trap heat by two different physical mechanisms, combining multiple greenhouse effects, one of which more closely resembles the atmospheric mechanism, rendering the misnomer debate moot.

Related effects

Negative greenhouse effect

The greenhouse effect involves greenhouse gases reducing the rate of radiative cooling to space, relative to what would happen if those gases were not present. This occurs because greenhouse gases block the outflow of radiative heat at low altitudes, but emit thermal radiation at high altitudes where the air is cooler and thermal radiation rates are lower.

In a location where there is a strong temperature inversion, so that the air is warmer than the surface, it is possible for this effect to be reversed, so that the presence of greenhouse gases increases the rate of radiative cooling to space. In this case, the rate of thermal radiation emission to space is greater than the rate at which thermal radiation is emitted by the surface. Thus, the local value of the greenhouse effect is negative.[83][84]

Recent studies have shown that, at times, there is a negative greenhouse effect over parts of Antarctica.[83][84]

Anti-greenhouse effect

The anti-greenhouse effect is a mechanism similar and symmetrical to the greenhouse effect: in the greenhouse effect, the atmosphere lets radiation in while not letting thermal radiation out, thus warming the body surface; in the anti-greenhouse effect, the atmosphere keeps radiation out while letting thermal radiation out, which lowers the equilibrium surface temperature. Such an effect has been proposed for Saturn's moon Titan.[85]

Runaway greenhouse effect

A runaway greenhouse effect occurs when greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere through a positive feedback cycle to such an extent that they substantially block radiated heat from escaping into space, thus greatly increasing the temperature of the planet.[86]

A runaway greenhouse effect involving carbon dioxide and water vapor has for many years been hypothesized to have occurred on Venus;[87] this idea is still largely accepted.[88] The planet Venus experienced a runaway greenhouse effect, resulting in an atmosphere which is 96% carbon dioxide, and a surface atmospheric pressure roughly the same as found 900 m (3,000 ft) underwater on Earth. Venus may have had water oceans, but they would have boiled off as the mean surface temperature rose to the current 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F).[89][90][91]

A 2012 journal article stated that almost all lines of evidence indicate that is unlikely to be possible to trigger a full runaway greenhouse on Earth, merely by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.[92] However, the authors cautioned that "our understanding of the dynamics, thermodynamics, radiative transfer and cloud physics of hot and steamy atmospheres is weak", and that we "cannot therefore completely rule out the possibility that human actions might cause a transition, if not to full runaway, then at least to a much warmer climate state than the present one".[92] A 2013 article concluded that runaway greenhouse "could in theory be triggered by increased greenhouse forcing", but that "anthropogenic emissions are probably insufficient".[93]

Bodies other than Earth

Greenhouse effect on different celestial bodies[94][95][96]
Venus Earth Mars Titan
735 K (462 °C; 863 °F) 288 K (15 °C; 59 °F) 215 K (−58 °C; −73 °F) 94 K (−179 °C; −290 °F)
232 K 255 K 209 K 82 K
Greenhouse effect 503 K 33 K 6 K GHE 21 K; net 12 K
Pressure 9300 kPa 101 kPa 0.64 kPa 150 kPa
Primary gases CO2 (0.965)
N2 (0.035)
N2 (0.78)
O2 (0.21)
Ar (0.009)
CO2 (0.95)
N2 (0.03)
Ar (0.02)
N2 (0.95)
CH4 (~0.05)
Trace gases SO2, Ar H2O, CO2 O2, CO H2

In the solar system, apart from the Earth, at least two other planets and a moon also have a greenhouse effect.

One cannot predict the relative sizes of the greenhouse effects on different bodies simply by comparing the amount of greenhouse gases in their atmospheres. This is because factors other than the quantity of these gases also play a role in determining the size of the greenhouse effect.

One relevant factor is “pressure broadening” of spectral lines. When the total atmospheric pressure is higher, collisions between molecules occur at a higher rate. Collisions broaden the width of absorption lines, allowing a greenhouse gas to absorb thermal radiation over a broader range of wavelengths. Each molecule in the air near Earth's surface experiences about 7 billion collisions per second. This rate is lower at higher altitudes, where the pressure and temperature are both lower.[97] This means that greenhouse gases are able to absorb more wavelengths in the lower atmosphere than they can in the upper atmosphere.[98] On other planets, pressure broadening means that each molecule of a greenhouse gas is more effective at trapping thermal radiation if the total atmospheric pressure is high (as on Venus), and less effective at trapping thermal radiation if the atmospheric pressure is low (as on Mars).[99]


The greenhouse effect on Venus is particularly large, and it brings the surface temperature to as high as 735 K (462 °C; 863 °F). This is due to its very dense atmosphere which consists of about 97% carbon dioxide.[100]

Although Venus is about 30% closer to the Sun, it absorbs (and is warmed by) less sunlight than Earth, because Venus reflects 77% of incident sunlight while Earth reflects around 30%; thus, contrary to what one might think, being nearer to the Sun is not a reason why Venus is warmer than Earth.[101][102]

Due to its high pressure, the CO2 in the atmosphere of Venus exhibits continuum absorption (absorption over a broad range of wavelengths) and is not limited to absorption within the bands relevant to its absorption on Earth.[99]

"Venus experienced a runaway greenhouse effect in the past, and we expect that Earth will in about 2 billion years as solar luminosity increases".[92]


Mars has about 70 times as much carbon dioxide as Earth, but experiences only a small greenhouse effect, less that 18 W/m2,[103] due to lack of water vapor and the overall thinness of the atmosphere.[104] However, the same radiative transfer calculations that predict warming on Earth are said to accurately explain the temperature on Mars, given its atmospheric composition.[105][106]


Titan is a body with both a greenhouse effect and an anti-greenhouse effect. The presence of N2, CH4 (methane), and H2 in the atmosphere contribute to a greenhouse effect, increasing the surface temperature by 21 K over the expected temperature of the body with no atmosphere. While the gases N2 and H2 ordinarily do not absorb infrared radiation, these gases absorb thermal radiation on Titan due to pressure-induced collisions, the large overall mass and thickness of the atmosphere, and the low frequencies of thermal radiation from the cold surface.[95][107]

The existence of a high-altitude haze, which absorbs wavelengths of solar radiation but is transparent to infrared, contribute to an anti-greenhouse effect of approximately 9 K. The net result of these two effects is a warming of 21 K − 9 K = 12 K, so Titan's surface temperature of 94 K (−179 °C; −290 °F) is 12 K warmer than it would be if there were no atmosphere.[95][107]

See also


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  4. ^ a b "Yearly average temperature". Climate Change Tracker.
  5. ^ a b A concise description of the greenhouse effect is given in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, "What is the Greenhouse Effect?" FAQ 1.3 – AR4 WGI Chapter 1: Historical Overview of Climate Change Science Archived 5 August 2019 at the Wayback Machine, IIPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Chapter 1, page 115: "To balance the absorbed incoming [solar] energy, the Earth must, on average, radiate the same amount of energy back to space. Because the Earth is much colder than the Sun, it radiates at much longer wavelengths, primarily in the infrared part of the spectrum (see Figure 1). Much of this thermal radiation emitted by the land and ocean is absorbed by the atmosphere, including clouds, and reradiated back to Earth. This is called the greenhouse effect."
    Schneider, Stephen H. (2001). "Global Climate Change in the Human Perspective". In Bengtsson, Lennart O.; Hammer, Claus U. (eds.). Geosphere-biosphere Interactions and Climate. Cambridge University Press. pp. 90–91. ISBN 978-0-521-78238-8. Archived from the original on 2 August 2020. Retrieved 31 May 2018.
    Claussen, E.; Cochran, V.A.; Davis, D.P., eds. (2001). "Global Climate Data". Climate Change: Science, Strategies, & Solutions. University of Michigan. p. 373. ISBN 978-9004120242. Archived from the original on 18 May 2020. Retrieved 1 June 2018.
    Allaby, A.; Allaby, M. (1999). A Dictionary of Earth Sciences. Oxford University Press. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-19-280079-4.
  6. ^ a b c Rebecca, Lindsey (14 January 2009). "Climate and Earth's Energy Budget : Feature Articles". Archived from the original on 21 January 2021. Retrieved 14 December 2020.
  7. ^ Fox, Alex. "Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Reaches New High Despite Pandemic Emissions Reduction". Smithsonian Magazine. Archived from the original on 10 June 2021. Retrieved 22 June 2021.
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External links