In an effort to describe what some researchers think is a mechanism for overheating the planet and the atmosphere, comparisons have been made to greenhouses and their ability to trap infrared (IR) radiation, the radiant heat with which everyone is familiar.
Greenhouses are interesting inventions. The “Greenhouse Effect” is the tendency of houses made of glass to trap and hold infrared energy, that is, radiated heat. The assumption is that the greenhouse is kept unusually warm as a result.
Common window glass is opaque to infrared (IR) wavelengths of light so no IR from the sun enters the greenhouse. Wait a minute... How can that be? Isn’t the whole idea to trap the IR inside the greenhouse? Yes, but it’s a little more complicated. Only sunlight of shorter wavelengths passes through the glass. That energy is what heats up the interior surfaces, the air and the ground inside the greenhouse, which then gives back some of the heat as IR radiation. That’s where the IR comes from – the inside of the glass house, not the outside.
The first problem with the greenhouse analogy applied to the atmosphere is that, unlike a glass house, plenty of infrared light from the sun reaches the surface of the earth1. A small portion is absorbed by water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and the few other gases that will grab a fraction of the IR band but most of the IR that is incident upon the earth’s atmosphere reaches the ground and the ocean surface.
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