Water vapor and clouds are the major contributors to Earth’s greenhouse effect, but a new atmosphere-ocean climate modeling study shows that the planet’s temperature ultimately depends on the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide. The study, conducted by Andrew Lacis and colleagues at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York, examined the nature of Earth’s greenhouse effect and clarified the role that greenhouse gases and clouds play in absorbing outgoing infrared radiation. Notably, the team identified non-condensing greenhouse gases — such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons as providing the core support for the terrestrial greenhouse effect.
Without non-condensing greenhouse gases, water vapor and clouds would be unable to provide the feedback mechanisms that amplify the greenhouse effect. The study’s results will be published Friday, Oct. 15 in Science.
A companion study led by GISS co-author Gavin Schmidt that has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that carbon dioxide accounts for about 20 percent of the greenhouse effect, water vapor and clouds together account for 75 percent, and minor gases and aerosols make up the remaining five percent. However, it is the 25 percent non-condensing greenhouse gas component, which includes carbon dioxide, that is the key factor in sustaining Earth’s greenhouse effect. By this accounting, carbon dioxide is responsible for 80 percent of the radiative forcing that sustains the Earth’s greenhouse effect.