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What Is Global Warming?

By R. Kayne
Updated: Jun 04, 2024

Global warming is a phenomenon characterized by a slow warming of the surface temperature of the earth. The basic understanding is usually that the atmosphere immediately surrounding the planet is getting incrementally hotter each year, which in turn leads the surface of both land and sea to warm, as well. The term itself does not imply a cause or speak to a cause; rather, it is a statement of fact that most in the scientific community acknowledge as true and provable. What causes more disagreement is discussions of why the temperature seems to be rising, what potential negatives are likely to result, and what human communities can or should do to slow or reverse the trend. Most theories posit that human emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas, whether through industrial processing or vehicle emissions, are chiefly to blame, while others suggest that the warming is simply part of the earth’s natural rhythm and will right itself with time. A lot of research around the world is devoted to the topic, and it’s often a hotly debated concept in political arenas and research institutes globally.

Basic Concept and Implied Meanings

In its most basic sense, global warming is exactly what it sounds like — the globe, meaning the earth, is getting warmer. According to most published research, the change has been extremely subtle; usually, the core temperature of the earth’s surface and the surrounding atmosphere has been measured to change just fractions of a degree each year. Year after year, however, this builds, with the result that the temperature today is significantly warmer than it was 100 or 200 years ago.

On its own the idea of a warmer planet isn’t overtly bad. Researchers who see the phenomenon as problematic usually focus their attention on the overall effects of the temperature shift, rather than on the shift itself. Warmer surfaces mean warmer oceans, for instance, which changes the biodiversity and habitats for numerous fish and sea life; warmer waters can also mean melting ice caps, which raise the level of the sea. Rising sea levels threaten coastal communities with floods and ground saturation, and might also impact larger weather patterns.

The Greenhouse Effect

One popular theory explaining the phenomenon relates to the "greenhouse effect." Gases that make up the atmosphere are analogous to a greenhouse in that they allow sunlight to pass through, then trap much of the heat from escaping. This naturally occurring phenomenon keeps Earth's surface warmer than it would be otherwise. Human produced compounds regularly released into the atmosphere in recent years have "thickened the greenhouse wall" beyond naturally occurring levels, however. When this happens, even less heat escapes, causing temperature to rise. This is called greenhouse warming.

While the scientific community generally accepts global warming as a proved concept, greenhouse warming is more controversial. It’s widely accepted that that human-produced compounds like carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and others are being released into the atmosphere, yet some argue it's not clear how this factors into the changes in temperature.

Implications for Ozone

Another distinct issue commonly associated with both global and greenhouse warming is the ozone. Ozone is a naturally occurring gas in the lower atmosphere that helps trap heat. The burning of fossil fuels is believed to create even more ozone, and it is one component of smog. As ozone builds, so does trapped heat, which most scholars agree increases the greenhouse effect.

Additionally, ozone plays a role in the upper atmosphere where it shields the Earth from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. According to most research, CFCs — the same human produced compounds that act like a greenhouse gas in the lower atmosphere — destroy ozone. This can result in holes in our upper ozone layer as seen over Antarctica where cold temperatures, atmospheric circulation, and other factors combine to "draw" these ozone holes.

Looking Towards the Future

What global warming means for the future, whether immediate or long-term, remains primarily unknown. Scholars can speculate and many of their models, based on past activity, are quite convincing; so are many of the changes the world today is seeing, including extreme weather patterns, coastal erosion, and melting ice caps. So much of the natural world is unpredictable, though, and it’s been very difficult to project what the future will hold beyond generalized and broad speculation.

All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Link to Sources
Discussion Comments
By Emilski — On Oct 23, 2012
When I was a kid in elementary school, which was in the 1990s, I remember so much propaganda that was brought about global warming that was hammered into our minds.

I still remember several "facts" that were presented to us, such as the rain forests being completely gone by 2000, as well as the polar ice caps melting by 2010. I really have to say that I think these so called "facts" had an averse effect on people, simply because they realized how impossible there were to happen.

Now I will say that global warming is something that needs to be addressed and serious problems will occur within the next hundred years, which is not really that far away, but I honestly feel many people do not take these warnings seriously because of previous warnings on estimation times that were fairly ridiculous.

By kentuckycat — On Oct 22, 2012
I really feel like in the last few years a lot of research has been done to explain the effects of global warming and it is actually somewhat rare to find a scientist that does not believe in global warming.

There is just insurmountable evidence that supports global warming, the only things that are not totally understood are the exact causes, as well as what can be done to stop or at least inhibit it.

If these aspects were understood, then the issue could start to be addressed in such a way that the nations of the world would be able to work together and address a problem that will affect everyone in the long term.

By jcraig — On Oct 22, 2012
@TreeMan - I agree that there has to be some truth to global warming, and I really find it to be quite surprising that some scientists are still so much in denial about it.

I really feel that it is insane to ignore so many strange occurrences happening in the last fifty years, such as the constant melting of the polar ice caps.

To me, the melting of the polar ice caps at such an alarming rate should throw up a red flag to those who doubt global warming.

The polar ice caps have been around for hundreds of thousands of years and the fact that a very large percentage has melted in only a few decades shows that there is something amiss and causing it. It just does not make any sense whatsoever that the polar ice caps would melt so quickly when they have been around so long. If it were normal, the ice caps would melt at a rate that is so slow it is hardly noticeable.

By TreeMan — On Oct 21, 2012

I do not know very much about weather or science in general, but it seems to me that scientists who specialize in analyzing weather cannot seem to agree on the effects of global warming or the exact implications.

I have heard that some scientists have questioned whether or not global warming is simply a myth or if pollution released in the air even has that much effect on the atmosphere.

I personally believe that there is some truth to global warming, simply due to the amount of industry and human created pollutants being released into the atmosphere that has been created in the last one hundred years.

By ddljohn — On Oct 21, 2012

@donasmrs-- I think the reason is because there are many lobbying groups that are currently working on the global warming issue. This is not just an environmental problem but also a problem for industry.

The truth is that the more restrictions that are placed on gas emissions, the more money industries will lose. So it's an ongoing fight between different interest groups to try and influence policies about global warming.

The other problem is that there are several countries in the world that have recently become developed and wealthy and have started producing a lot of emissions. Even when countries like the US implement changes in industry to lower emissions, if all countries don't make the same changes, it will not make much of a difference. We all share the earth and all of us will have to face the consequences.

By donasmrs — On Oct 20, 2012

There is so much contradicting and misleading information out there about global warming. It's so difficult to get accurate global warming. Why?

Why isn't there one single authority that can tell us what is happening and what needs to be changed to prevent this phenomenon from getting worse?

By turquoise — On Oct 20, 2012

Does global warming mean that the climate will keep getting hotter and hotter?

In the past couple of years, I have noticed that the summers are hotter than before but I've also noticed that winters are getting colder too. So it doesn't really feel like global warming is making temperatures higher all the time. Rather, it feels like it's creating more extremes in temperature. If it's cold, it's becoming too cold and if it's hot, it's becoming too hot.

Am I right? Could this be a global warming effect?

By anon166311 — On Apr 07, 2011

Hmmm it may take about 100 years until the real effects start. Hopefully we have time to stop it.

By anon50329 — On Oct 27, 2009

What about the thousands of real climate scientists who think this "theory" is a bunch of hooey? The adherence to this school of thought is religious. It is the same as the flat earth theory many centuries ago. When are you going to wake up and realize that it takes more faith to believe in this than to believe in any other religion? Any "scientific theory" that has to do with the control of your actions and money should smell funny. *sniff* *sniff* something's rotten here.

By anon31422 — On May 05, 2009

Is it true that Global Warming also is the cause of some viruses. ex. the swine flu?

By anon31421 — On May 05, 2009

Is there's a way to stop Global Warming? or a prevention?

By sbundebele — On Aug 01, 2008

is global warming a threat to biodiversity?

By anon9973 — On Mar 17, 2008

I love wiseGEEK it has helped me with my research paper a bazillion times!!!!!! It is in all of my favorites folders!!!!:) Congrats on the 20,000th article!!!!:):):)(:(:(:

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