Adding More Greenhouse Gases Increases Temperature


More Greenhouse Gases Increases Temperature

Adding more greenhouse gases does increase the temperature more. Put on more blankets on a cold night, and heat leaves you more slowly, making you feel warmer. But, if you put a really good stopper in the drain of your sink to keep the water in, adding more plugs doesn’t slow down the drainage still more. We thus know situations in which the job is only partly done so that adding more workers or blankets or plugs will do more, but we know other situations in which the job is completely or almost completely done and adding more help doesn’t make a difference.

For carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the job is not done, and adding more does turn up the temperature. This is mostly because the greenhouse gases are very good at absorbing energy of certain wavelengths, but only somewhat good at absorbing slightly different wavelengths. So, while the outgoing radiation in the lower part of the atmosphere is completely blocked for the just-right wavelengths, that outgoing radiation is only partially blocked for the almost-right wavelengths; adding more greenhouse gas increases blockage of the almost-right radiation.

Furthermore, if you go up in the atmosphere, the air gets thinner, and at some height there is so little greenhouse gas that the just-right wavelengths are only partially blocked. Adding more of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide increases this height. The temperature at this height adjusts to radiate to space as much energy as is received from the Sun, and, the physics of the atmosphere cause the temperature to increase downward (squeezing air under higher pressure does work on the air that increases its temperature), so raising the height from which radiation escapes warms the surface.

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A molecule of a greenhouse gas has more of a warming influence when the gas is rarer; very roughly, each doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide has the same effect on surface temperature. Going from the level of carbon dioxide in the air before the industrial revolution, 280 parts per million by volume (280 ppm) to twice that, 560 ppm, and letting the climate come into balance will warm the surface by about 3 C. How much more carbon dioxide must be added to the atmosphere to warm the surface by another 3 C?

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ANSWER: To warm by another 3 C would require redoubling - so another 560 ppm carbon dioxide to go from 560 to 1120 ppm, and the next 3 C of warming would require another doubling, from 1120 to 2240 ppm.