What are the Most Dangerous Greenhouse Gases?

What are Greenhouse Gases; What do They Do; Where do They Come From?

The layman’s definition of greenhouse gases (GHG) tends to include misnomers. An accurate characterization of greenhouse gases is necessary to fully comprehend the process by which they increase global warming. Then, global warming’s influences on climate change become apparent.

The most misleading word used to definition and characterization of greenhouse gases is absorbed.

Greenhouse gases do not absorb heat.

Instead, greenhouse gases reflect heat. This is an important distinction because the Earth’s surface plays a role in global warming as well. Solar energy enters the atmosphere and solar energy warms the Earth’s surface. The heat from the surface of the Earth escapes back into the atmosphere. And, the thermal heat from the Earth’s surface escapes into space.

Unless, that is, greenhouse gases reflect the heat back toward the surface of the Earth.

Greenhouses gases reflect thermal heat, but not solar energy. As such, even when greenhouse gases are present, solar energy can pass through the atmosphere. But, upon reaching the Earth where solar energy converts to thermal heat, it becomes trapped.

Simply, greenhouse gases do not absorb solar energy nor thermal heat. Greenhouse gases reflect heat. Greenhouse gases trap heat against the Earth’s surface.

And, greenhouse gases also have other effects.

10 Most Dangerous Greenhouse Gases

The term greenhouse gases include gases that have global warming potential (GWP). But, greenhouse gases also include gases that do not increase global temperatures. In addition to gases that increase global temperatures, greenhouse gases include toxic emissions.

Some greenhouse gases increase global temperatures. Some greenhouse gases are poisonous. Some are carcinogenic. Some destroy the atmosphere.

There are 10 greenhouse gases that most concern scientists.

1) Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

Of all the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is the most concerning. The sheer quantities of CO2 released into the air are astounding. “Other gases have more potent heat-trapping ability molecule per molecule than CO2 (e.g. methane), but are simply far less abundant in the atmosphere.”

“In the United States, carbon dioxide makes up 84.6% of all emissions,” says Penn State professor/researcher Virginia A. Ishler.

Even a half-decade ago, every second human activity released 24 million pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere. Today, the numbers are even higher. “Human activity is estimated to be pumping almost 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.”

According to Dr. Canadell of the Global Carbon Project, that number is simply “staggering.” What’s more, scientists just aren’t certain what the consequences are.

What is known is that CO2, “sticks around.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that “After a pulse of CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere, 40% will remain in the atmosphere for 100 years.” A further 20% will remain in the atmosphere for 1,000 years. And, there is an additional 10% will remain in the atmosphere for 10,000 years.

“This literally means the heat-trapping emissions we release today [are] setting the climate our children and grandchildren will inherit.”

2) Methane (CH4)

With respect to global warming potential (GWP), methane is 25% stronger than carbon dioxide. Methane, in other words, is 25% more efficient at trapping heat against the Earth’s surface than CO2. And, like carbon dioxide, the sums of methane emitted into the air each year is staggering.

While methane occurs naturally, human activity is responsible for the tremendous sum of excess in the atmosphere. “Burning fossil fuels, raising livestock, cultivating rice, and dumping in landfills are all contributing to the increasing presence of [methane].”

The World Atlas explains, “Pre-industrial levels were approximately 700 parts per billion. Today, that has increased to 1,870 parts per billion.”

And methane begets methane. The global warming effects of methane melt permafrost and the polar ice caps. Methane trapped in the ice escapes further adding to the effects of global warming.

3) Nitrous oxide (N2O)

Nitrous oxide is, on a per-unit scale, one of the most damaging greenhouse gases. The Environmental Protection Agency reports, “Nitrous Oxide (N2O) has a GWP 265–298 times that of CO2 for a 100-year timescale. N2O emitted remains in the atmosphere for more than 100 years, on average.”

Nitrous oxide is most commonly found in agricultural fertilizer.

4 & 5) Dichlorodifluoromethane (CCl2F2) & Chlorodifluoromethane (CHClF2)

So dangerous are dichlorodifluoromethane and chlorodifluoromethane that the United States and Europe banned the manufacturing of them. Used as a refrigerant, these greenhouse gases have devastating effects on stratospheric ozone.

The atmospheric life of chlorodifluoromethane is only 10 to 17 years. But, those exposed to  chlorodifluoromethane can experience, “significant toxic effects.”

Dichlorodifluoromethane has an atmospheric life of 102 years.

6) Tetrafluoromethane (CF4)

Another refrigerant, tetrafluoroethane does not deplete the ozone. However, it does have a high radiative efficiency meaning it reflects heat. Fortunately, for now, there is very little emitted by human activity annually. However, as dichlorodifluoromethane and chlorodifluoromethane are no longer used as refrigerants, more and more tetrafluoroethane is released into the air each year.

Tetrafluoroethane has an atmospheric lifetime of 50,000 years.

7) Hexafluoroethane (C2F6)

Like tetrafluoroethane, there is not a great deal of hexafluoroethane in the atmosphere. Used as in the semiconductor industry, there is currently no great demand for it. But again, like the demand for tetrafluoroethane, the demand for hexafluoroethane is increasing.

The World Atlas states, “hexafluoroethane has a 10,000-year atmospheric lifespan and a global warming potential (GWP) of 9,200.”

Carbon dioxide has a GWP of 1.

8) Sulfur Hexafluoride (SF6)

Sulfur hexafluoride is another uncommon greenhouse gas that is gaining popularity. It is used as an electric insulator.

Sulfur hexafluoride has an atmospheric life of 3,200 years. The GWP of sulfur hexafluoride is 23,900 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

9) Nitrogen Trifluoride (NF3)

Another greenhouse gas that destroys the ozone layer, NF3 stays in the atmosphere from between 550 and 740 years.

10) Ozone (O3)

Ozone is a greenhouse gas that is easily misunderstood. The reason being, there are two types. There is a natural ozone gas called stratospheric and manmade ozone. Manmade ozone is called tropospheric. 

Stratospheric ozone protects Earth’s inhabitants from the harsh radiation from the sun. It blocks solar energy. Tropospheric ozone, on the other hand, reflects thermal energy — heat — from the Earth’s surface back toward Earth.

That means the thermal heat from the Earth’s surface cannot escape into space. The result is global warming.

11) Water Vapor

While water is not typically considered a danger, too much water vapor in the air adds to global warming. Water vapor is not only a product of global warming it is a contributor. Increased global temperatures evaporate ocean water, surface freshwater, glaciers, and polar cap ice. In turn, the water that is vaporized prevents heat from the Earth’s surface from escaping into space.

Water vapor is both a symptom and a catalyst for global warming.

While there are other types of greenhouse gases — literally thousands in fact — most reside in the atmosphere in small quantities. They may be more toxic or more efficient at preventing the Earth’s heat from escaping into space. But, there aren’t enough of them to register as a future threatening greenhouse gas.

If we could manage to control the amount of the 11 greenhouse gases above, we would be taking a massive step forward in the preservation of our Earth.

We Have the Technology to Slow — even Stop — Global Warming

There is the technology for every individual and company to slow global warming considerably. And, many do not require people to stop using their fossil-fueled vehicles. For example, switching to diesel-fueled cars.

Diesel is 30% more efficient than gasoline. And, carbon emissions from diesel engines can be reduced by incredible sums with pre-combustion fuel catalysts. In addition to being more economical with our fossil fuels, there are other solutions.

Alternative fuels are one solution. Public transportation is another solution. In the end, it all comes down to how much we are willing to sacrifice in order to save ourselves from ourselves.


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