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What is Greenhouse Gas and What Causes It?


Greenhouse gases are gases such as carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrous oxide and methane that occur naturally on Earth. Sunlight can enter the atmosphere freely through these gases, but when it reflects back off of the Earth as infrared radiation, or heat, greenhouse gases act as a sort of insulation and trap some it inside. This is a naturally occurring phenomenon that, without human interference, serves to keep the Earth at a relatively stable, life-sustaining temperature.

The problem arises when there is such a heavy concentration of these greenhouse gases that too much heat is trapped inside the Earth's atmosphere. Our planet exists in a state of balance. Animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants do just the opposite. They "inhale" carbon dioxide and "exhale" oxygen. When the percentage of oxygen created by plants is equal to the percentage of carbon dioxide created by animals, everything balances out. Unfortunately, humans are cutting down so many trees and paving over so much land that we are getting out of balance, and there is an abundance of carbon dioxide. This accumulates in the atmosphere and acts as a greenhouse gas.

Carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide are emitted by burning fossil fuels such as petroleum, natural gas and coal. Gasoline usage and energy production are two of the biggest uses of fossil fuels and as our energy use increases, greenhouse gas emissions continue to escalate. Currently, the United States produces about a quarter of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, because we are almost entirely dependent upon fossil fuels for energy production.

What is considered as one of the greatest recent advances of mankind has turned out to be one of the deadliest to the environment. When the process of refridgeration was invented, there were a couple of different gases invented specifically for the process. Both were forms of chlorofluorocarbon, a.k.a. Freon. When Dupont released Freon, it's biggest selling point was that it was a stable gas that wouldn't blow up the house. It turns out that the same stability that was touted as one of the best inventions of the industrial age ended up being what caused tremendous damage to the atmosphere.

Freon is so stable that it doesn't break down with water and low levels of sunlight like most gases do. Instead, it floats all the way up to the upper atmosphere before the heat breaks it down into carbon dioxide and chlorine. Chlorine is absolutely deadly to the ozone, and we have already discussed the effects of carbon dioxide. Besides being used as a refridgerant, Freon was also used as a propellant in aerosol cans containing such things as hairspray. Though Freon in these forms was banned in 1995, there are still old refridgerators and air conditioners around that use it. When disposing of an old refrigeration unit, contact local waste authorities for proper protocol. When you buy either a new or used appliance, make sure that it doesn't use this gas.

Methane is another greenhouse gas that is increasing in production. It is the byproduct of animal waste, most prominently from cattle. Methane has a shorter atmospheric lifespan than carbon dioxide but has over sixty times the heat trapping capacity. This gas is also produced by landfills and fossil fuel production. Here is yet another prime example of why we need to decrease our energy use.

Sulpher hexafluoride is another little-known greenhouse gas. It is produced, among other ways, in the creation of magnesium. Ironically enough, car companies are using more and more magnesium in production because it is lighter and thus produces greater fuel economy. The increasing demand for magnesium parts by the auto industry is causing a large spike in emissions of sulpher hexafluoride.

Reducing greenhouse gases is absolutely essential to the survival of the Earth and in order to make a significant change, we have to decrease our energy consumption and be more environmentally responsible by finding alternate ways to create energy. Just by using less water, electric and gasoline we can make a huge difference. Also, we have to protect our rainforests and make a greater effort to build and expand in ways that don't destroy trees and grasslands. Only by acting as guardians of our environment are we going to be able to save the planet as we know it.

What You Can Do
Spread the word
  • Tell people you conserve energy and use enery efficient appliances.
  • Read a book that explains how to conserver energy.
  • Look for small ways you can conserve energy every day.
Where you can buy it
Your Complete Guide To Renewable Energy
Your Green Home
The Party's Over: Oil, War And The Fate Of Industrial Societies
Get the Facts
Why Conserve Energy - National Wildlife Federation
Conserve Energy - Help Save the World
Reduce Energy - U.S. Dept. of Energy
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