Is Water Vapor a Greenhouse Gas? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

There is no novelty when saying that climate change is still affecting our planet. Besides other types of pollution and greenhouse gases, there are some who are wondering: Is water vapor a greenhouse gas? Water vapor is the most abundant greenhouse gas on Earth. However, many experts discuss the extent of its contribution. Scientists used NASA satellite information to estimate the ‘heat-trapping effect of water in the air.’

Therefore, they confirmed that the role of the gas is a critical component of climate change. Moreover, the heat-amplifying effect of water vapor is so dangerous that it may double the warming events determined by high CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

Back in 2008, scientists used data from the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder on NASA’s Aqua satellite to establish the humidity throughout the lowest ten miles of the atmosphere. The study developed by NASA scientists mixed those measurements with global observations regarding temperature shifts. Therefore, researchers developed a comprehensive picture, indicating the connection between atmosphere-warming gases, carbon dioxide, and water vapor.

Water vapor significantly contributes to temperature raising

By adding a high amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the result will consist in warmer temperatures. However, the most important question is how much warming can derive from water vapor. Rising water vapor usually triggers higher temperatures, causing more water vapor to be absorbed into the atmosphere.

Water vapor feedback is able to reinforce the warming effect of other greenhouse gases. In this way, the warming determined by increased levels of CO2 will allow more water vapor to be released into the atmosphere. Specialists indicate that 95% of greenhouse gases represent water vapor. Water vapor triggers the formation of positive feedback loop in the atmosphere. Furthermore, they make temperature changes even bigger than they would naturally be.

Specialists explain that the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere is strongly related to the temperature. When the temperature increases, even more, water will evaporate, transforming into vapors and the other way around. Therefore, when something causes the temperatures to rise, then more water will evaporate, spreading water vapors into the atmosphere.

Other greenhouse gases also contribute to climate change effects

Since water vapor represents a greenhouse gas, the additional water that evaporates will increase the temperature even further. When it comes to establishing how water vapor contributes to the amplification of CO2 warming, scientists have a different explanation. Previous studies indicate that water vapor feedback can double the warming process determined by CO2.

Therefore, if there is a temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius caused by CO2, the water vapor will make the temperature rise with another 1 degree Celsius. Furthermore, another important thing needs to be taken into consideration when discussing the contribution of water vapor. Water gets evaporated from the sea and land, falling as snow or rain. Therefore, the amount of water retained by the atmosphere as water vapor can vary.

It may oscillate in just a few hours or days, being the result of the prevailing weather in any area. Even if water vapor represents the greatest greenhouse gas, it is short-lived. However, CO2 will no longer be in the air after natural geological-scale processes. As a consequence, CO2 may remain the atmosphere for decades or even centuries. Therefore, skeptical persons state the truth when saying that the dominant greenhouse gas is water vapor.

Water vapors rising in the air

Among other greenhouse gases, water vapors also contribute to climate change effects.

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Carbon dioxide has the greatest impact on temperature raising

Researchers explain that on average water vapor accounts for approximately 60% of the warming effect. Nevertheless, some say that water vapor does not control our planet’s temperature. The temperature of the surrounding atmosphere confines the maximum amount of water vapor that the atmosphere can contain.

When a volume of air features its maximum amount of water vapor, and there is a low temperature, a certain amount of water vapor will condense and turn into liquid water. In this way, clouds develop while warm air featuring water vapor increases and cools at higher altitudes. There, the water condenses, forming the droplets that make up clouds.

Non-condensable gases control the greenhouse gases. Mainly, the most popular one is CO2. The smaller contributions consist in ozone, nitrous oxide, and methane. Gradually, other human-made gases like fluorine- and chlorine-containing solvents became part of this mixture. The atmosphere can include more gases because they are not condensable at atmospheric pressures and temperatures.

Therefore, carbon dioxide has been accumulating in the atmosphere ever since the Industrial Revolution. Back then, we started burning massive amounts of fossil fuel. If the amount of non-condensable greenhouse gases does not increase, then the quantity of water vapor in the atmosphere will not change. The increase of noncondensable gases determines the temperature to grow, leading to an increase in water vapor which further raises the temperatures.

Greenhouse gases may be the product of human activity or may occur naturally

Greenhouse gases have the greatest impact on the changing climate of Earth. They vary in how greatly they trap solar heat and how long they last after they reach the atmosphere. Furthermore, they also vary when it comes to their sources and the measures taken to control them.

However, some greenhouse gases can naturally occur, entering the atmosphere as a result of human activity and natural processes, like decomposition of organic matter. Other greenhouse gases apart from ozone, nitrous oxide, methane and water vapor have no natural sources. They represent products of industrial processes, or they may be created for human purposes.

People may use some of them as electrical insulators, refrigerants, and cleaning agents. The human-made greenhouse gases include sulfur hexafluoride, nitrogen trifluoride, perfluorocarbons, bromofluorocarbons, hyfrofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons, and chrolofluorocarbons. All these gases can trigger atmospheric warming when they absorb infrared radiation emissions. Furthermore, they also transfer the extra energy to the surrounding atmospheric gases.

During the past century, the temperature at the surface of our planet has increased by about 0.9 degrees Celsius. The temperature can only change when there appears a change in the Earth’s energy balance.

Summing up

The effects of several greenhouse gases, water vapor included, have severely affected the atmosphere. Officials from different countries have developed several programs to try and diminish the greenhouse gas effects and air pollution. Nevertheless, climate change does not seize to control our planet, triggering an increase in temperatures.

Image Source: Pixabay

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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