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Greenhouse Gases


Michael Forlini | Jul 26, 2008

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For over the past 200 years, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, and deforestation have caused the concentrations of heat-trapping "greenhouse gases" to increase significantly in our atmosphere. These gases prevent heat from escaping to space, somewhat like the glass panels of a greenhouse. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), a number of fluorinated gases and water vapor (H2O). Some greenhouse gases occur naturally, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide, while others, such as chlorofluorocarbons, are produced only through human activities. However, total U.S. emissions have risen by 16.3 percent from 1990 to 2005.



Greenhouse gases are necessary to life as we know it, because they keep the planet's surface warmer than it otherwise would be. But, as the concentrations of these gases continue to increase in the atmosphere, the Earth's temperature is climbing above past levels. According to the
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA data, the Earth's average surface temperature has increased by about 1.2 to 1.4ºF in the last 100 years. The eight warmest years on record (since 1850) have all occurred since 1998, with the warmest year being 2005. Most of the warming in recent decades is very likely the result of human activities. Other aspects of the climate are also changing; rainfall patterns, snow and ice cover, and sea level.


If greenhouse gases continue to increase, climate models predict that the average temperature at the Earth's surface could increase from 3.2 to 7.2ºF above 1990 levels by the end of this century. Scientists are certain that human activities are changing the composition of the atmosphere, and that increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases will change the planet's climate.

 


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