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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 and oxygen. The two atoms in these molecules are bound together tightly and unable to vibrate, so they cannot absorb heat and contribute to the greenhouse effect.

Last modified February 1, 2010 by Randy Russell.

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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...more

Carbon Dioxide - CO2

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a kind of gas. There isn't that much carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere, but it is still very important. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps trap heat coming...more

Methane - CH4

Methane is a kind of gas. There is a small amount of methane in the air you breathe. A methane molecule has carbon and hydrogen atoms in it. Methane is a greenhouse gas. That means it helps make Earth...more

Molecules

Most things around us are made of groups of atoms bonded together into packages called molecules. The atoms in a molecule are held together because they share or exchange electrons. Molecules are made...more

Nitrogen

There is more nitrogen gas in the air than any other kind of gas. About 4/5ths of Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen gas! A molecule of nitrogen gas is made up of two nitrogen atoms. There are other molecules...more

Oxygen

Oxygen (O2) is a kind of gas. A lot of the air you breathe is oxygen. That's a good thing, since we need oxygen to stay alive! About 4/5ths of the air in Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen (N2). Almost all...more

Earth's Greenhouse Effect

Energy from the Sun that makes its way to the Earth’s surface can have trouble finding its way back out to space. This is because of a natural process called the greenhouse effect. Without the greenhouse...more

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