When Goldilocks entered the house of the three bears, she tested three bowls of porridge. One was too hot, one was too cold, but one was just right.

Planet Earth is like that last bowl: it’s just the right temperature to support life. That’s because it has just the right amount of greenhouse gases – such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor – all trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Kirk Maasch of the University of Maine explains that when the earth absorbs heat from the sun, it cools itself by emitting some of this heat back to space. Greenhouse gases act like a heat-trapping blanket – absorbing some of the heat radiation that’s headed to space, and emitting it back towards earth.

Maasch: “And so it’s trapped for a longer amount of time close to the surface, until it ultimately finds its way through the molecules that can absorb it, back up to space.”

Called the greenhouse effect, this process intensifies as more carbon pollution is added to the atmosphere — in effect thickening the blanket and trapping more heat. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are releasing enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, amplifying the natural greenhouse effect and increasing our planet’s temperature, so it’s no longer “just right.”

Reporting credits: ChavoBart Digital Media.

More Resources
Greenhouse Gas Emissions (EPA)
Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Causes & Sources
What are greenhouse gases? (NOAA)

Erika Street Hopman

Erika Street Hopman is co-founder of ChavoBart Digital Media (CBDM), an audio and video production firm with a focus on scientific and environmental media. CBDM contributes original reporting, audio production,...