World Environment Day: All about the greenhouse effect

New York, New York - You can think of the greenhouse effect on Earth exactly like the warm and insulated house you might see at a plant nursery. And if temperatures keep rising on our planet, it can harm the things living in the greenhouse – namely, us and the environment. Yet, it turns out we may actually need the greenhouse effect to survive. On World Environinment Day, celebrated on June 5, we dive in.

You can think of the greenhouse effect as if the planet were in an actual greenhouse.
You can think of the greenhouse effect as if the planet were in an actual greenhouse.  © Collage: IMAGO / Panthermedia

Even though the cozy warming greenhouse effect is driving climate change and leading to more extreme weather, the phenomenon is what makes the planet Earth warm enough to live on.

Without the added layer of insulation from the atmosphere, research projections have shown that the Earth could be an average of around 64 degrees colder. The cooler temperatures would be a death sentence for most species, humans included.

But although the atmosphere traps heat from the sun, not all solar energy that hits the planet sticks around.

First, the rays of the sun – which are a type of electromagnetic radiation that carry heat to our planet – hit the outer layers of the atmosphere.

Some of those rays bounce right off and are lost in space, but most of the sun's energy makes it through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the Earth's surface.

Then, the planet releases some of that energy, which heads off towards outer space again. But enough of that energy sticks around and is absorbed and released by gases in our atmosphere, which warms the planet.

The gases that make this warming effect possible include our favorite climate change culprit, carbon dioxide, and its stronger cousin, methane – which are what climate scientists are talking about when they mention greenhouse gases.

Despite the inconvenient fact that rising greenhouse gas emissions from human activity are to blame for the climate crisis, the greenhouse effect – if it is stabilized by curbing emissionsis an ally for life on Earth.

Cover photo: Collage: IMAGO / Panthermedia

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