This animation shows how a carbon dioxide molecule vibrates when it absorbs heat.
Courtesy of UCAR (LEARN and COMET)
Earth's Greenhouse Gases
Even though only a tiny amount of the gases in Earth’s atmosphere
are greenhouse gases, they have
a huge effect on climate.
There are several different types of greenhouse
gases. The major ones are carbon
dioxide, water vapor, methane,
and nitrous oxide. All of these have molecules
with three or more atoms.
The atoms are held together loosely enough that they vibrate when they absorb
heat. Eventually, the vibrating molecule will release the radiation. The radiation
will likely be absorbed by another greenhouse gas molecule. This process, which
keeps heat near the Earth’s surface, is called the greenhouse effect.
Almost all of the other gases in Earth’s atmosphere are nitrogen
The two atoms in these molecules are bound together tightly and unable to vibrate,
so they cannot absorb heat and contribute to the greenhouse
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The Summer 2010 issue of The Earth Scientist
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, includes articles on rivers and snow, classroom planetariums, satellites and oceanography, hands-on astronomy, and global warming.
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