How Global Warming works

A blanket to keep out the cold

The Earth’s climate is driven by a continuous flow of energy from the sun. Heat energy from the sun passes through the Earth’s atmosphere and warms the Earth’s surface.

As the temperature increases, the Earth sends heat energy (infrared radiation) back into the atmosphere. Some of this heat is absorbed by gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) , water vapour, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and helacarbons.

The greenhouse effect

These gases, which are all naturally occurring, act as a blanket, trapping in the heat and preventing it from being reflected too far from the Earth. They keep the Earth's average temperature at about 15°C: warm enough to sustain life for humans, plants and animals. Without these gases, the average temperature would be about minus 18°C - too cold for higher life. This natural warming effect is also sometimes called the greenhouse effect.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

CO2 is the most significant of the gases in our atmosphere which keep the Earth warm. Four billion years ago its concentration in the atmosphere was much higher than today (80% compared to today's 0.03%), but most of it was removed through photosynthesis over time. All this carbon dioxide became locked in organisms and then minerals such as oil, coal and petroleum inside the Earth's crust.

The natural carbon dioxide cycle

A natural carbon dioxide cycle keeps the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere in balance. Decaying plants, volcanic eruptions and the respiration of animals release natural CO2 into the atmosphere, where it stays for about 100 years. It is removed again from the atmosphere by photosynthesis in plants and by dissolution in water (for instance in the oceans).

The amount of naturally produced CO2 is almost perfectly balanced by the amount naturally removed. Even small changes caused by human activities can upset this equilibrium.

WWF

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