Global Warming: The Greenhouse Effect and Albedo

By: Khushi Gupta

Image Credit: Pixabay @ TheDigitalArtist

Some say it’s fake, only because they can’t accept the reality. Melting glaciers, thousands of affected animals, rising sea levels. Global warming is happening, and there is nothing we can do to stop it. Or is there?

Global warming is the slow increase of the Earth’s temperature due to the greenhouse effect and increased levels of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. Human activities are the largest contributor to the greenhouse effect, and ever since the Industrial Revolution has occurred, this fact has only become more pronounced.

The greenhouse effect is all about the balance of energy with the Earth’s atmosphere. To understand this, one must understand albedo.

Albedo is a measurement of the amount of sunlight that is reflected. A perfect reflection would be 1.0 or 100% with a perfect absorption equaling 0.0 or 0% reflection. If a substance has a high albedo, it would reflect a lot of light. Usually, dark surfaces have low albedos meaning that less light is being reflected (or more light is being absorbed), which makes temperatures higher. The opposite is true for light colors that have high albedos. When it’s hot outside, people generally wear light colors like white as it keeps you cooler because most of the sunlight gets reflected.

Albedo affects ocean temperatures and can cause sea levels to rise. Glaciers and snow help reflect most of the sun as it has high albedos compared to dark water and land. With the melting ice and snow, Earth’s albedo is affected as there becomes an imbalance with an increase of the ocean water. With the increase of light absorption, the environment becomes more heated, making the continuous loop even stronger.

While albedo works with the Earth’s surface, the Greenhouse Effect comes into play with the Earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere is mostly composed of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%), however there are many other gases that make up a small percentage. Of the remaining gases, some are called greenhouse gases (GHG) as they absorb infrared radiation, which normally escapes toward space and is re-emitted to Earth. It’s a natural effect that is helpful since it makes the Earth warm and suitable for life. Without GHG and the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be a ball of ice at -18C where no life would exist. However, there needs to be a balance: we cannot have too much or too little of the GHG. Take Mars and Venus for example. Mars doesn’t have enough GHG in its atmosphere, making it too cold for life, while Venus has too much, so it’s hot enough to be able to melt lead.

With human interference, the amount of greenhouse gases has increased, disturbing the balance of gases in the atmosphere. Humans use fossil fuels as primary energy sources and the burning of these or the cutting down of forests release carbon dioxide that was previously trapped. The increase creates an imbalance, leading to more heat being captured and re-emitted, thus making the Earth much warmer.

There are many organizations and efforts created to help slow down and stop global warming. Everyone can help out. No matter how little a contribution seems, it’s one step closer to the cause. For one, you can use more sustainable transportation methods such as carpooling, walking or biking to nearby locations, or buying climate-friendly cars. Cars are one of the major contributors to GHG emissions with 82% of transportation emissions coming from cars. For some, it might not be possible, but even just stopping from rapid brakes or acceleration, you are lowering your fuel consumption by about 40%. Other efforts include eating less beef, advocating for the cause, and convincing your friends to make a change as well. Animal agriculture accounts for 15% of human emissions, and 41% of that comes directly from beef. Giving your friends these hints can cause them to change their behavior, as human nature consistently shows that we are motivated to do things that others around us do.

Education Content:

Q: What is albedo and what is an example of something with high albedo?

A: Albedo is a measurement of the amount of sunlight that is reflected. Something with high albedo would generally be a light color such as snow or ice.

Q: What are some examples of greenhouse gases (GHG)? A: Methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide.


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