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The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change 

The warming of the atmosphere by heat reflected from the earth is called the greenhouse effect.  Carbon dioxide in the air is very important in this process because it absorbs heat.  The greenhouse effect actually makes the Earth habitable.  During the past century large amounts of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere by burning coal, oil, gas and wood.  Some scientists believe this process may enhance the greenhouse effect.

This enhanced greenhouse effect may change the heat balance of the earth.  This is a very complicated process.  It involves the plants which use carbon dioxide to produce food, the circulation of the atmosphere, and heat and gas exchanges between the air and the oceans.  We know little about these matters on a world-wide scale.  Many people are now studying these subjects and sophisticated computer models are being developed to help us better understand the effects an enhanced greenhouse effect will have on a global scale.

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Greenhouse Effect DiagramA very small rise in the air temperature may have a very great change on the earth.  A rise of 3 degrees Celsius in average annual temperature would make the grain growing areas of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan unsuitable for agriculture.  Reducing carbon dioxide emissions would require basic changes in our lifestyles.  Even though there is some evidence that global temperatures are increasing, these changes are very gradual and are presently within the naturally occurring temperature cycles that the Earth has experienced since the last ice age.  The effects of climate change caused by an enhanced greenhouse affect are still being debated.

Reprinted from Focus On Air Quality  (1993) with permission of Alberta Environment.

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