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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - The greenhouse gases


THE GREENHOUSE gases are those gases in the atmosphere which, by absorbing thermal radiation emitted by the Earth's surface, have a blanketing effect upon it. The most important of the greenhouse gases is water vapour, but its amount in the atmosphere is not changing directly because of human activities. The important greenhouse gases that are directly influenced by human activities are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and ozone. This chapter will describe what is known about the origin of these gases, how their concentration in the atmosphere is changing and how it is controlled. Also considered will be particles in the atmosphere of anthropogenic origin, some of which can act to cool the surface.

Which are the most important greenhouse gases?

Figure 2.5 illustrated the regions of the infrared spectrum where the greenhouse gases absorb. Their importance as greenhouse gases depends both on their concentration in the atmosphere (Table 2.1) and on the strength of their absorption of infrared radiation. Both these quantities differ greatly for various gases.

Carbon dioxide is the most important of the greenhouse gases that are increasing in atmospheric concentration because of human activities. If, for the moment, we ignore the effects of the CFCs and of changes in ozone, which vary considerably over the globe and which are therefore more difficult to quantify, the increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) has contributed about 72% of the enhanced greenhouse effect to date, methane (CH4) about 21% and nitrous oxide (N2O) about 7% (Figure 3.11).