What are the Most Important Greenhouse Gases and Their Sources?


The list below of greenhouse gases is in order of most abundant in the atmosphere.






Water Vapor

Water vapor contributes the most to the greenhouse effect and occurs in the atmosphere as a result of the natural cycle of water. Water vapor does not stay in the atmosphere for long, so it responds very quickly to changes in the surface temperature. Warming puts more water vapor in the atmosphere and cooling removes water vapor from the atmosphere. Consequently, when a small amount of a long-lived greenhouse gas like CO2warms the atmosphere a little, additional water vapor enters the atmosphere and effectively doubles the amount of warming.


Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Carbon dioxide also cycles naturally between the atmosphere and living organisms. Plants and algae remove CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis, while all living things release CO2 via respiration (i.e., breathing). Carbon dioxide also cycles back and forth between water on the Earth’s surface (freshwater and the oceans) and the atmosphere. In addition to these natural processes, humans release large quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and other industrial processes.


Methane (CH4)


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is a natural byproduct of decomposition, but significant quantities are also produced via agriculture and animal husbandry as well as by fossil fuel production.


Nitrous oxide (N2O)

Nitrous oxide is released naturally from terrestrial soils and oceans, but substantial quantities are also generated from the use of nitrogen fertilizers in agriculture and through some industrial processes.


Other Gases

A number of other natural and man-made gases also contribute to the greenhouse effect, including tropospheric ozone, and industrial gases such as halocarbons.



While not a gas per se, aerosols are airborne particles within the atmosphere. Some aerosols, such as sulfate aerosols and black carbon aerosols, are also produced by fossil fuel combustion. Sulfate aerosols tend to reflect incoming solar radiation, cooling the Earth’s surface Black carbon aerosols absorb, rather than reflect, solar radiation, which shades the Earth’s surface, but warms the atmosphere.


Source: Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

Website: http://www.c2es.org/science-impacts/basics/faqs/climate-science

This article is part of our educational series on Climate Change. See related articles below.

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