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Common Questions about Climate Change
Published in 1997 by the United Nations Environment Programme - World Meteorological Organization

 

 

 

Britannica Internet Guide Selection
See: Information from Encyclopædia Britannica about global warming

 

More Questions and Answers from the Education page of the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Do Human-made Greenhouse Gases Matter When Water Vapor Is the Most Potent Greenhouse Gas?

The Earth's surface temperature would be about 34°C (61°F) colder than it is now if it were not for the natural heat trapping effect of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and water vapor. Indeed, water vapor is the most abundant and important of these naturally occurring greenhouse gases. In addition to its direct effect as a greenhouse gas, clouds formed from atmospheric water vapor also affect the heat balance of the Earth by reflecting sunlight (a cooling effect), and trapping infrared radiation (a heating effect).

However, just because water vapor is the most important gas in creating the natural greenhouse effect does not mean that human- made greenhouse gases are unimportant. Over the past ten thousand years, the amounts of the various greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere remained relatively stable until a few centuries ago, when the concentrations of many of these gases began to increase due to industrialization, increasing demand for energy, rising population, and changing land use and human settlement patterns. Accumulations of most of the human-made greenhouse gases are expected to continue to increase, so that, over the next 50 to 100 years, without control measures, they will produce a heat-trapping effect equivalent to more than a doubling of the pre-industrial carbon dioxide level.

Increasing amounts of human-made greenhouse gases would lead to an increase in the globally averaged surface temperature. However, as the temperature increases, other aspects of the climate will alter, including the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. While human activities do not directly add significant amounts of water vapor to the atmosphere, warmer air contains more water vapor. Since water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, global warming will be further enhanced by the increased amounts of water vapor. This sort of indirect effect is called a positive feedback.

It has been suggested that as greenhouse gases accumulate, the atmospheric events that generate cumulus clouds in tropical areas would cause a drying rather than moistening of the upper layers of the troposphere (the lowest region of the atmosphere). However, observations of the current atmosphere provide evidence for the conclusion that on a global scale, a warmed atmosphere will moisten and this will enhance greenhouse warming.

Clouds are another important factor in determining climate. The increased levels of water vapor in the atmosphere, as well as changes in temperatures and winds, will also cause changes in clouds that will alter the amount of energy from the sun that is absorbed and reflected by the Earth, at some locations enhancing and at others diminishing the warming due to greenhouse gases. The response of clouds to global warming is a major uncertainty in determining the magnitude and distribution of climate change.


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