The Greenhouse Effect

My brother and I ran an organic farm. I came home from my job as a science teacher at 3 o’clock to water the seedlings and ducklings we were raising in our greenhouse. It was March 3rd and 27 degrees outside with six inches of snow on the ground. I opened the door to our greenhouse and it was like walking into a furnace. The temperature inside was 140 degrees and the ducklings and seedlings were dead. The circuit breaker to the exhaust fans had tripped.

Greenhouse Gases

Carbon dioxide and methane are referred to as greenhouse gases because they act in the atmosphere much like the plastic on our greenhouse and neither is bad in limited concentrations. Carbon dioxide, CO2, is produced by the breathing of animals, and burning; and methane is produced by decaying organic matter and bison and other cattle. Water vapor is also a potent greenhouse gas and is formed when water evaporates. All three of these gases are natural and, importantly, prevent the planet from becoming a giant freezer. There are also natural controls of these gases that have helped the planet from getting too hot.

Plants use the sun’s energy through photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar, and the sugar is used in all green plants.

Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, but it is naturally in lower concentrations and it slowly breaks down in the atmosphere into carbon dioxide.

Water vapor is much lighter than air so it rises in the atmosphere, cools, and falls back to the Earth as rain or snow.

Climate Change

In the past decades, we have begun to hear about greenhouse gases causing climate change.

Coal, oil, and natural gas are all referred to as fossil fuels because they are formed from plants that have been accumulated over millions of years and buried deep underground.

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning fossil fuels for energy, releasing massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere at a faster and faster pace. For a while the oceans were able to absorb much of the CO2, forming carbonic acid, but that’s another story. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to increase.

At the same time the more potent greenhouse gas, methane, is rising in the atmosphere, due to oil well and gas line leaks as well as huge landfills full of organic matter. And more people can afford and get a liking for meat and milk creating a huge demand for millions more cattle that are belching methane from their guts. 

Global Temperature Rising

As the concentration of greenhouse gasses increases, the global temperatures rise. As the global temperatures rise the forests dry out and start to burn releasing all the carbon dioxide that they took in as they were growing. And remember that warm soda goes flat because it releases its carbon dioxide. As the oceans warm they can’t hold as much carbon dioxide and release their carbon dioxide into the atmosphere causing more warming.

In the Arctic summer, plants grow rapidly in the long daylight. In the long winter darkness, organic matter is frozen in the ice for millennia forming a thick permafrost. As the Arctic climate warms, organic matter from millions of years begins to thaw and decay leading to the release of swamp gas, which is the much more potent greenhouse gas, methane.

So, the question is… When does the circuit breaker trip?

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