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The greenhouse effect is the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the planet’s surface to a temperature above what it would be without its atmosphere.
If a planet’s atmosphere contains radiatively active gases (i.e., greenhouse gases) the atmosphere will radiate energy in all directions. Part of this radiation is directed towards the surface, warming it. The downward component of this radiation – that is, the strength of the greenhouse effect – will depend on the atmosphere’s temperature and on the amount of greenhouse gases that the atmosphere contains.
On Earth, the atmosphere is warmed by absorption of infrared thermal radiation from the underlying surface (heated by the sun), absorption of shorter wavelength radiant energy from the sun, and convective heat fluxes from the surface. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere radiate energy, some of which is directed to the surface and lower atmosphere. The mechanism that produces this difference between the actual surface temperature and the effective temperature is due to the atmosphere and is known as the greenhouse effect.
Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is critical to supporting life. Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming.
The mechanism is named after a faulty analogy with the effect of solar radiation passing through glass and warming a greenhouse. The way a greenhouse retains heat is fundamentally different, as a greenhouse works by reducing airflow and retaining warm air inside the structure
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