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Turning up the heat

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Graphic elementThe facts

Turning up the heatThe greenhouse effect is actually a natural and useful phenomenon. The earth's atmosphere contains water vapour, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. These gases form a transparent layer that acts like the glass in a giant greenhouse. Light from the sun can get through to warm the earth, but the heat has difficulty getting out again. Just as the inside of a greenhouse gets hot on a sunny day, the earth's atmosphere is also warmed. Without the greenhouse effect, our planet would be so cold we could not exist.
In the last 150 years, we have burned increasing amounts of coal, oil and natural gas. The vast quantity of carbon dioxide that we have released into the atmosphere has gradually increased the greenhouse effect. Most scientists believe that this is raising the average temperature of the earth's atmosphere. The mean annual temperature across Europe, for example, has increased by about 0.5C since 1900. If this trend continues, it could have a huge impact on the world's climate and the environment.

Graphic elementAction

Turning up the heatDuring the last 15 years, the European Union has supported dozens of projects to increase our understanding of the link between the greenhouse effect and global warming. The EU's Environment, Climate, and Marine Science research programmes have convinced the world that man's ability to change the global environment is a major challenge for the future, and in 1997, at the Kyoto Conference in Japan, Europe backed international policies that will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.
We know a lot about the human activities that give off carbon dioxide and methane, but we don't yet understand enough about the natural processes that release, absorb and store these important greenhouse gases. The way the earth transfers carbon between natural reservoirs - the carbon cycle - is very complex; learning more about it will help us to decide how best to reduce emissions. European researchers are busy investigating the earth's natural capacity to deal with excess greenhouse gases. How much carbon dioxide, for example, can the forests and oceans mop up? Can we do anything to enhance these 'carbon sinks'?







Turning up the heat

Managing our methane emissions

Methane is the most important greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. It is given off by all biological decay. In Western Europe, several projects are quantifying the huge volumes of methane released by intensive cattle breeding, landfill, sewage, and more. These emissions could be greatly reduced by appropriate environmental management.

Forest 'carbon sinks' reduce the greenhouse effect
Through photosynthesis, plants store carbon, which they take from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They therefore play an important role in reducing the global warming it causes via the greenhouse effect. The EUROFLUX measurement network estimates that European forests constitute a carbon sink able to absorb 10% to 40% of carbon dioxide emissions related to human activities in Europe.

Turning up the heat

Understanding the role of the oceans
Several European projects are underway to study the little-understood mechanisms of carbon dioxide exchanges between oceans and the atmosphere - exchanges which are very important for absorbing human emissions of this greenhouse gas. Scientists on the ASGAMAGE project are using measurement platforms to investigate the processes involved.

Turning up the heat

 
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