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Scientists Stats

How We Know CO2 Is At Fault
By Julia Brown

It makes up just 0.04 percent of the atmosphere, but carbon dioxide is a small molecule with a big bite. We have known the mechanism behind this for more than 150 years.

In 1861, John Tyndall discovered that CO2's three atoms vibrate when hit by certain photons. Photons from the sun pass straight through the atmosphere, unhindered by CO2, but when they reach Earth's surface they bounce back as infrared photons - or heat, in other words.

Instead of passing through the atmosphere, these photons are adsorbed by CO2 and released again, only this time they fly off at random directions. As a result, more heat stays within the atmosphere than goes back out into space. This is the greenhouse effect, a double-edged sword that fosters life, but is also causing rapid global warming.

Human vs Nature

Human factors- mainly CO2 emissions - are increasingly causing the atmosphere to adsorb more solar energy, which is warming Earth. By contrast, the warming due to changes in the sun's activity is very small.

The other greenhouse gases act in the same way: methane, nitrous oxide, CFCs, ozone and water. Because there is so much of it, water vapor is the biggest heat trapper, but human activity is not directly increasing the atmosphere's water content. What we are doing is digging up fossil stores of carbon in the shape of coal, gas and oil. When we burn them to produce energy, we release CO2 and methane. Some CO2 is taken up by plants and returned to the soil, some is absorbed by the oceans, and some is stored in rocks that react with CO2 when exposed to air. But these natural processes cannot keep up with the rate at which we are releasing greenhouse gases.

The final blow is CO2's extraordinary long life. It can stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years, so each molecule we produce adds to atmospheric concentrations and thickens Earth's blanket. "If we want the temperature to fall," says Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading, UK, "we will have to invent a way to remove CO2 from the air on a huge scale. In the meantime we'll need to adapt to a warmer world."

How We Know CO2 Is At Fault
By Julia Brown