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If greenhouse gas molecules were enlarged, this would be their general shape.

The Greenhouse Effect

Have you ever been inside a greenhouse on a cold winter day? It might be cold outside, but inside the greenhouse lush green plants flourish in the warmth and sunshine. Greenhouses are made of glass and are designed to hold heat inside. The atmospheres of some planets trap energy too. Energy from the Sun can enter the atmosphere, but not all of it can easily find its way out again.

What blocks the Sunís energy from escaping a planetís atmosphere? Molecules in the atmosphere called greenhouse gases absorb the heat. Greenhouse gases include water vapor, methane, ozone, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide.

An atmosphere that contains greenhouse gases can have a powerful greenhouse effect. Without its atmosphere and greenhouse gases, the surface of the Earth would be as cold as the surface of Mars. The presence of too many greenhouse gases can cause the temperature to increase out of control, however. Such is the case with the atmosphere of Venus.

Earth's greenhouse effect is growing stronger as the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increases. The additional greenhouse gases come mainly from burning of fossil fuels, which releases the gases and other air pollutants into the atmosphere. A stronger greenhouse effect is causing Earth's climate to warm.

Last modified February 1, 2010 by Lisa Gardiner.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA