The Real Final: Greenhouse Warming

This topic submitted by Katherine Kostopoulos and Mark Dalman ( ) on 5/1/02 .

Global Climate Change -Western Program-Miami University


Mark Dalman and Katherine Kostopoulos

I significantly analyzed two greenhouse gases amongst the idea of greenhouse warming and how one can affect the other in its total influence on the climate. This was accomplished by taking several different samples of carbon dioxide and water vapor data analyses, which I then evaluated and illustrated how they affect the global temperature and their attribution to the greenhouse effect. The data was analyzed to find out if the greenhouse gases: water vapor and carbon dioxide are linked in their affect or if it is more complex than it seems. I plan to further develop this data and to be able to unequivocally state that when water vapor and carbon dioxide are present, the global change is far greater effective than without the water vapor feedback.


The greenhouse effect is in no way an artificial result, exclusively brought about by mankind. Rather, it is the atmosphere's natural ability to store the heat radiated from the earth, which creates a warmer atmospheric layer near the ground. Therefore, the Earth experiences a "soft" springtime at +15 degrees C rather than an icy winter with a mean temperature of 18 degrees C. About one half of the solar energy that reaches the atmosphere's outer limits from space actually hits the surface of the earth. The other half of solar insulation is reflected by clouds and other gases, or is absorbed on its way through the atmosphere. It is thus, by the remaining half that reaches the ground, that the surface of the earth is heated. Every heated body, though, radiates by itself proportional to its temperature. This is not a bad thing. Without greenhouse gases, we would not be able to survive. By trapping the heat inside our atmosphere, the Earth's temperature is an average 60 degrees F. Without these greenhouse gases, Earth would be too cold to sustain life.

In 1827, Jean-Baptiste Fourier had suggested the existence of an atmospheric effect that was soe how keeping the Earth wrmer than it would otherwise be. He had been observing the ambient temperatures as well as conjecturing the temperatures in the troposphere. He found that there was some sort of cover that was capturing the heat, which would normally escape the earth's surface. He became the first person to use the analogy of a greenhouse, and this event marked the beginning of the term "greenhouse" gases. It was not until forty years later that a scientist by the name of John Tyndall published a paper describing how water vapor could be used as a greenhouse gas. That was the beginning of the search for greenhouse gases.

Under a clear sky, roughly 60-70 % of the natural greenhouse effect is due to water vapor, which is the dominant greenhouse gas in earth's atmosphere. Next important is carbon dioxide (20%), followed by methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide [IPCC 90, p 47-48]. Clouds are another big player in the game. Please don't confuse clouds with water vapor: clouds consist of water droplets or ice particles or both. Under a cloudy sky the greenhouse effect is stronger than under a clear sky. At the same time, cloud tops in the sunshine look brilliantly white; they reflect sunlight.

The effects of CO2 were first discovered and first worried about in the late 1890's by a Swedish scientist, Svante Arrhenius, and an American scientist, P.C. Chamberlain, whom independently considered the problems that might be caused by CO2 building up in the atmosphere. Both scientists realized that the burning of fossil fuels could lead to global warming, but neither suspected the process might already have started. However, by itself, CO2 is not enough to cause serious climate change. Most of the warming predicted in the models today come from a feedback involving water vapor. Hence, I decided to evaluate the two together. It is this idea of just evaluating one or the other and not both together that make so many people benevolent to what causes the greenhouse effect to increase. When CO2 concentrations increase, it leads to warmer temperatures, which, through the processes of water physics, leads to an increase in water vapor in the atmosphere. This increase in atmospheric concentrations leads to an even larger increase in the greenhouse effect.

As one can see, temperature and CO2 concentrations from 160,000 years to present were very similar in how their effects influence one another. The atmospheric concentrations of CO2 of the past were vastly different from current standards, as were the concentrations of water vapor. The best information about past climate variability comes from ice cores drilled miles deep in Antarctica and Greenland, which reveal that temperatures changed substantially over the past 400,000 years. Although most of these changes occurred over thousands of years, some rapid "warmings" took place over a period of decades.

To get at the concentrations of gases centuries ago we must turn to the ice. The ice cores trap carbon dioxide and methane, which shows that these gases were present in the atmosphere at their lowest levels during cold eras and at higher levels during warm eras. Carbon dioxide did not rise much above 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv) until the industrial revolution. By the end of the 20th century, it had reached 370 ppmv, with an average increase in the last two decades of 1.5 ppmv a year. Both carbon dioxide and methane are more abundant in the atmosphere now than at any time during the 400,000-year ice core record. (National Academics 1)

Lake Vostok is a sub-glacier lake, 250 x 50 km, in Antarctica. It is the purest, most uncontaminated lake in the world. Above this lake are 3539-3750 m of glacier ice that has been drilled and oxygen levels have been analyzed to determine the Earth's temperature for thousands of years. This is the most data ever retrieved on climate temperatures. (Science, 286, 2138-2147)
-Hailiang Dong

Lake Vostok

Things one should think about in the process of understanding global warming and the greenhouse effect are: Is greenhouse warming occurring? If so, why? Are we the cause of this problem or has it been going on prior to the appearance of the Industrial Revolution? If global warming has been going on for more then a century, what was the atmosphere like back then? Can we see that the accumulation of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels in addition to more water vapor in the atmosphere have lead to more warming? I would like to find out if the accumulation of CO2 in the air is influencing water vapor concentrations or if they are totally independent of each other. If they are dependent, do the effects of them working together out weigh the significance of them working alone? Has the work of scientists previously included both working together, or is that something that induces the uncertainty in climatic models? I would like to take you on a journey to find out if any of these statements hold any truth. The problem that I hope to solve is to hopefully determine if an increase in CO2 will correlate in an increase in water vapor.

Now you may ask how do we know if we are to blame for the intensifying greenhouse effect? Based on assumptions that emissions of greenhouse gases will accelerate and conservative assumptions about how the climate will react to that, computer models suggest that average global surface temperatures will rise between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 and 5.8 deg C) by the end of this century. With regard to the basic question of whether climate change is occurring, reports note that the temperatures at the Earth's surface rose by about 1 degree Fahrenheit (about .6 degrees Celsius) during the 20th century. This warming process has intensified in the past 20 years, accompanied by retreating glaciers, thinning arctic ice, rising sea levels, lengthening of the growing season in many areas, and earlier arrival of migratory birds. (National Academics 1) I think that is rather clear that global warming is occurring and it does not look like it is going to be leveling off any time soon.

The contribution of water vapor to the anthropogenic greenhouse effect (that portion of greenhouse warming caused exclusively by humans) is still controversial. At numerous environmental conferences, greenhouse gases such as CO2 and methane (CH4) are discussed primarily, while, many times the role of water vapor in both its natural and anthropogenic aspects remains unmentioned. Yet, water vapor not only holds the top position concerning the natural greenhouse effect, but also participates in the additional absorption of heat in the atmosphere.

Dr. Hays Cummins once said, "No one knows anything for sure and that's the greatness of science. It's an ever changing study and that's where the drive is to be continuously discovering new things." Barring that, all we can do is look at previous data and interpret the past to presume what the future will be. A dilemma we face is that we do not have a significant record of the Earth's temperature. Only for the past few hundred years have we actually recorded data of the Earth's temperature, however, we do not know the accuracy of this information for the pre-1900 years. You can only increase the accuracy by having more data samples. However, using the information (as reliable as it is) we have today, as well as ice cores, sediment cores, and CO2/volcanic ash readings, we can discover the temperatures of the past. By utilizing climate proxies, we can extrapolate data to determine what it was like in regards to a set point (a norm, usually from the year 1950). This allows scientists to view how the Earth responds to changes in the environment, and to help predict through model simulations what future temperatures will theoretically be. Our dilemma now though, is that there has never been a time in the Earth's history where we have seen similar high air temperatures, polar ice caps, and non-equilibrium (unstable) climate to possibly reflect what the future has in store for us (Crowley, 5). Therefore, we do not know how the Earth will react to the current levels of CO2; it's predicted rate of increasing, the influences of other greenhouse gases, the increase in Earth's temperature, and the increasing use of fossil fuels.


Data from years past have concluded that our mean temperature about 10,000 years ago was a shocking 16 degrees C cooler. (Broecker 5) To obtain temperatures of these drastic proportions, the atmosphere had to be able to allow the escaping of radiant heat from the earth's surface. Also, one must then realize that the water vapor content must have been much lower during glacial times. If that's the case, either the processes that deliver or those that remove water vapor from our atmosphere must have been much different then.

I'm not speculating that I would blow enormous amounts of water vapor into the air and enhance the greenhouse effect. On the contrary, the concern is for the secondary effects. That is, if the average temperature of atmospheric layers near to the ground (as a consequence of anthropogenic CO2 and methane emissions) is rising, then the evaporation of water is increased. If there is an increase in evaporation, then more water vapor will be produced in our atmosphere, which should then lead to an increase in the absorbance of heat.

It remains uncertain, though, which concentrations, at which locations, and at which altitudes in the troposphere will contribute the most to greenhouse warming. In addition, it is unclear how this surplus of water vapor will truly alter the warming process of the earth.

Another aspect that we must consider is why do we need to be concerned with water vapor? The answer is that water vapor is the atmosphere's most powerful greenhouse gas. If you wanted to cool the entire planet by 5 degrees C and could magically alter the water vapor content of the atmosphere, a 30% decrease would do the job. In fact, the major debate among atmospheric scientists regarding the magnitude of the coming greenhouse warming hinges on what's referred to as the water vapor feedback. (Broecker 5)

Positive Feedback

Negative Feedback

If the water vapor in the atmosphere were to remain exactly the same as it is now, then a doubling of CO2 would heat the planet only about 1.2 degrees C. However, when CO2 is doubled in these models, the atmosphere holds more water vapor, enhancing the warming to 3.5 degrees C +/- 1.5 degrees. This increase would certainly cause major problems for agriculture, especially where conducted in continental interiors. (Broecker, 5)

The debate scientists are concerned about is whether the models change the water vapor in the same way that it will change as CO2 rises in the real world. Crucially, for the models to be right and the feedback to happen, the free troposphere has to warm up. The feedback only works because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor from the oceans. Because water is a very powerful greenhouse gas, that would multiply the effect of CO2 several fold and the overall effect would just snowball from there. But if the free troposphere didn't warm up, it wouldn't hold more water and the feedback wouldn't be triggered. And according to the models, it made a big difference. With the feedback, models predicted that temperatures would increase by up to 6 degrees C over the century. Without it, there wouldn't be much of a change at all, even if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled. We can see that one without the other wont produce anything it is the matriculation and the summation of the different aspects of greenhouse warming that lead to the increase in the global change. But we have to be careful with how we interpret data. Today many believe that the earth is warming. Back in the 1970's however, we were in a cooling state and many believed that this was the beginning of an ice age (NASA, 2).

Most scientists agree that right now the Earth is in a warming state, in a linear pattern for that matter. However, what goes up must come down. Theories are stating that this warming period is actually the cause for an ice age that will appear next. Studies show that this will not happen for another 10,000 years, longer than it took to reach the last ice age, but that this is due to the increase amounts of greenhouse gases. It is believed that as the greenhouse gases warm up the Earth, ice glaciers will melt, meaning more water that can be absorbed into the air as water vapor. As more water vapor is increased into our atmosphere, more precipitation will fall and ice will form, which cools the Earth's temperature. Eventually there will be more ice and cold water that will freeze and begin our new ice age.


In order to examine the effects of carbon dioxide and water vapor on greenhouse warming, several aspects including location, amount of data available, and the accuracy of data need to be considered. Location, we found out to be key. It is the one that determines the amount of data available and the accuracy of this data. For our purposes, we wanted an area where data on the fluctuations of the concentrations of CO2 and water vapor were BOTH available for at least the last 30 years, with no missing data or loopholes. However, we found that to be a very difficult process. It seems that there are no areas that contain a significant amount of CO2 data as well as water vapor data. Usually, it is just one or the other. Initially, we had chosen Boulder, Colorado as our site. It had a great amount of CO2 information, but no water vapor data was available. The next nearest place to contain water vapor information was in Carr, Colorado, but that was 100 miles away. It would be like comparing apples to oranges. And, since this atmosphere is in a continental region, it is not only affected by industry, automobiles, and human influences, but as well as the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountains can condense water vapor as the air pushes over the mountains. Therefore, this is not an ideal environment to obtain accurate data.

So we decided to use a mixed atmosphere that would provide us with the proper sampling, and the most suitable place we found was American Samoa.

Using statview and excel, we developed statistical analysis of CO2 concentrations vs. Time and Water vapor concentrations vs. Time to see if these greenhouse gases are independent of each other or if there is a correlation. However, we faced the same dilemma here as we did in Boulder, Colorado. There was not enough data available to prove our goal. We wanted to be able to statistically and factually say that without the affects of CO2 and water vapor working together, we would not be able to see such deleterious effects on our planet. Instead an analysis of CO2 and water vapor concentrations has been develop to see how each influence global temperature individually. Our first goal is a great analysis question for future research.


After analyzing the CO2 concentration in American Samoa, it is evident that there has been a steady, nearly linear, increase in CO2 concentrations for the past 30 years. It ranges from 325 ppmV in the early 1970s to a varying 350-552 ppmV in the late 1990s. It has an average increase of 1.4 ppmV per year. We utilized a linear regression to discover a R^2 value to be .8, meaning it almost fits the line perfectly.

The analysis of the water vapor in American Samoa conflicted us with a great more difficulty. We were only able to find five data points representing two different years, 1986 and 1988. Therefore, we determine this data invalid and inaccurate in its total representation of water vapor concentrations in American Samoa. Just to reference it to the trend line in the CO2 concentration graph, we plotted one and discovered a negative slope with an R^2 value of .4. However, that indication means nothing because of the lack of data available.

We were able to see however, how sporadic and variable the water vapor concentration is throughout a day. We were able to conclude though that as the height increases, the amount of water vapor decreases in the atmosphere.






We do not have any information on how water vapor influences global temperature change from here.

For reference, we did not use a Spearman-Rank, ANOVA, or T-test, do to the lack of data available for water vapor concentrations. But we felt that we should convey the data that is out there so that further research can be done on it.

height of water vapor samples

data sheet


After analyzing the CO2 and water vapor data, it's easy to see that greenhouse warming is occurring, right now, at this very moment, and that it has been for a very long time, even before the industrial revolution. It's apparent though, that the most detrimental effects of this greenhouse warming has occurred ever since the industrial revolution, so it is safe to say that we are causing a much more than naturalistic increase in greenhouse gases. The question is now, what do we do about it, and are people willing to change their way of life to accommodate the environment?

Carbon dioxide, by itself, is not very harmful to the environment. The problem develops due to the abundance of CO2 that is produced and maintained in our Earth and atmosphere. Water vapor, is actually the most important and influential greenhouse gas, yet it seems to be the one most people ignore or forget about. Yet, water vapor is the one that does the most damage. Unfortunately, our evidence does not provide us with the fact that CO2 and water vapor concentrations are dependent on each other. Not because this is not true, but just because the research has not been done yet and accurate data is not available. Due to the physics of it though, the two should correlate. We know that individually, they affect greenhouse warming and increase global temperatures. There's no reason then why the two should not work together as a team, and influence each other, to get the same job done (even possibly at a greater extent).

In conclusion, we hope we provided you with a foundation of what greenhouse warming is, and how carbon dioxide and water vapor affect and influence it. We also wanted to provide you data that was not slanderous or biases. Too many times this issue becomes a political battle, and the true sight of what is really happening is forgotten or lost. Then again, with a President like Bush, no explanation is necessary. We're hoping though that more data will be available and that scientists set a standard, globally, to obtain accurate data. This is a long shot, but we can always hope for it. We have thousand of sites that we can use to obtain this information, but not even a quarter of them are being used anymore. And the bigger problem is that we do not even have data for the past 100 years, and on a geological time scale, that is not even a blink of an eye. So much is left to do. And we all need to take action and responsibility for it.

Works Cited

PowerPoint presentation

CO2 affecting greenhouse warming
Talks about reinforcing the idea of co2 being behind the fact of global warming and how there is proof backing it up

Talks about the trends of climate change increase

Sampling Process
Pictures of the sampling process of carbon dioxide

Where we got our data from


CO2 and watervapor data

Lake Vostok

Pictures of CO2 emissions
Good site for CO2 comparative analysis

Picture of estimated temperature

GW with CO2 and H2O
Global warming effects dealing with water vapor and CO2

Water vapor
water vapor points of view

Temperature graph
shows graph of last 2400 years and where other civilizations where in regards to temp<


Water vapor source
water vapor really good source

>Greenhouse myths

Focus on the future

Early Warning Signs


aquatic ecosystems
Information on the hydrologic cycle

Greenhouse Feedback
Explains how the feedback processes occur

Changing the land surface usage
The influence of greenhouse warming and the land

record of greenhouse effects
Geologic evidence of how greenhouse warming is occurring

global view
Different sites for CO2 sampling

background on greenhouse effects
A good review and background information on the explanation of greenhouse warming

Facts about greenhouse warming
Evidence that greenhouse warming is occurring

Greenhouse effect
Explains how the greenhouse effect is warming our planet

Greenhouse warming and its influences on the greenhouse effect
Emphasizes greenhouse warming and the effects it has on the greenhouse effect

Greenhouse gases over time
How greenhouse gases have either decreased or increased over time

greenhouse warming
A good review of the basics

methane released and its effects
Thorough explanation of the influence methane has on greenhouse warming

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