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The Earth Energy Balance

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The earth’s temperature relies heavily on the existing balance between the total radiations emitted by the sun and how much of this radiations are reflected back into the atmosphere by the earth (Riebek 2010). In addition to the reflected radiations, the earth’s surface also emits infrared radiations into space. While the infrared radiations are passing through the atmosphere, some of the radiations are absorbed. The absorbed radiations play a role in heating the earth. This process of heating the earth is called the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect has been invaluable since time immemorial in maintaining the energy balance on the earth. As a result of green house effect, life on the planet earth has been habitable. Recently, it has been established by scientists that the energy system of the earth is out of balance (Knox and Douglas 2010). Though this poses a great risk to the existence of humans, something encouraging is that almost 90% of the greenhouse gases that are emitted are as a result of human activities. This therefore means that possible remedies can be found. As a result, there has been great attention being directed to the energy balance system. Environmentalists all over the world have engaged gears on ways of maintaining the energy balance that ones existed (Simon 2009). International organizations have also been formed to check on ways of maintaining the energy balance, for instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In this paper, the green house effect and its role in maintaining the energy balance will be discussed in details. Also the paper will analyze the threats posed to the environment by use of massive fossil fuels among others. Lastly, the paper will discuss the alternative energy sources that are friendly to the atmosphere.

The greenhouse effect

For better understanding of the energy balance system, greenhouse effect will be discussed since it plays a key role in maintaining the existing balance. According to Dansten, ( 2007), the effective temperature we experience on the earth’s surface is higher than the actual earth temperature. He argues that the surface temperature of the earth is 228K. The difference is as a result of the effect of components that absorb heat in the atmosphere. The effect of heat absorption in the atmosphere is what is being referred as the greenhouse effect. The origin of the name greenhouse is analogous to the farming practice where the plots are warmed by being covered with either glass or plastic. With the earth’s greenhouse, gases are used in place of glass or plastic. The atmosphere contains a variety of gases with the main components being nitrogen gas and oxygen gas. These major components absorb little or none of the radiations. The minor gases are the ones that form a blanket like cover in the atmosphere to absorb radiations from the sun (Spring 2007). The greenhouse is formed mainly by the water vapor in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide gas, nitrous oxide gas, methane and chlorofluorocarbons. Greenhouse effect describes the trapping of energy by the atmospheric gases mentioned above. Since the earth’s atmosphere is nearly transparent to sunrays, all the rays absorbed on the earth’s surface lead to warming and emission of infra red radiations. The radiations cannot be allowed to escape into the space freely, but instead, some is absorbed by the mentioned gases. Once the gases absorb the radiations, they warm up the surrounding air and in the process emitting radiations both upwards (space) and downwards (earth’s surface) (Knox and Douglas 2010). This process effectively traps some of the infra red radiations from the ground up to 10 km above it. As a result, lose of heat from the atmosphere is reduced. This balances the incoming radiations from the sun. Release of a lot of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere increases the thickness of gases. As a result, heat being reflected from the earth’s surface will not escape into the atmosphere. This leads to increased temperatures on the earth’s surface, a process commonly referred as global warming. (Riebek, 2010) From the discussion, it should be understood that the greenhouse effect only attempts to balance the heat but do not stop the output of heat. The effect does this by forcing the earth to increase its surface temperature till the quantity of heat radiated from the top of the greenhouse layer is same as the solar radiations. Therefore, it can be concluded that the greenhouse effect is so invaluable in the daily lives of humans. Without it, temperatures will be so extreme and unbearable for human lives. There is need to protect the environment if told we want the natural existence that was there before to continue. But at the moment, the greenhouse effect is facing a great challenge that is threatening to upset the natural balance (Simon 2009). Some of the threats are discussed below.

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Carbon dioxide

Increased levels of carbon dioxide gas pose a great threat to the environment. Some of the factor that has contributed to continued increase in carbon dioxide levels include, burning of coal, oil and gases. According to Dansten, the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere during the pre-industrial era was 280 parts per million (2007). Currently, the levels of carbon dioxide has risen to 380 parts per million. It is projected that this levels are still on the rise. As of late, some scientist analyzed the bubbles of air that were trapped in ice in Antarctica region that showed the levels of gases in the earth’s atmosphere (Spring 2007). They concluded that the current concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere is the highest ever for the past 800,000 years. In addition, the study showed that the time when the earth was warm tallied to high greenhouse gas levels. These ever increasing levels of carbon dioxide are projected to have a great impact on the global climate of the near future.  Though a lot of attention seems to be directed towards the global climate, the direct effects of carbon dioxide on growth of plants appear to have been ignored. Moderate levels of carbon dioxide are required for plants to carry out photosynthesis efficiently (Knox and Douglas 2010). High levels will impair plant growth and as a result, food insecurity will be a major concern. Increased carbon dioxide levels will mean more gases will be added in the atmosphere. This will increase the amount of heat on the earth’s surface as discussed above

Increasing of fossil fuels

Another great threat to the environment is the increased use of fossil fuels. According to Riebek, (2010 ), fossil fuels are the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide. It is unfortunate that the fossil fuels are the ones used in almost all daily activities. Motor vehicles, ships, aero planes and so many other engine driven machines use fossil fuels. The increased uses of fossil fuels perhaps explain why they lead in polluting the environment. They contribute to almost three quarters of all carbon and methane emitted (Spring 2007). The gases are emitted in great percentages when the fossil fuels are burned at high temperatures to produce electricity. Forecasters predict that oil reserves with time will level off hence oil production will stop (Dansten 2007). This might be positive news to environmentalists. The forecasters also predict gas supplies to last for over 200 years while coal is predicted to last for the next 3000 years. If this is true, then the world as a whole should device mechanisms that will help in the conservation of oil. But when oil is considered in terms of pollution, then one may easily ignore measures of conserving it.

The coal

Among the three sources, gas is considered the cleanest, then oil while coal comes third.  The three are known to be non-environmental friendly because of the levels of pollution they cause. Coal burns to produce potentially toxic oxides. Such oxides like nitrous oxides once inhaled by living organism, they are health hazards. They irritate the lungs and cause bronchitis (Spring 2007). Most of the coal is made up of carbon. Burning of coal will therefore mean increased levels of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. The increased levels of the gas therefore increase the thickness of the ozone layer. In the end, more heat is trapped between the earth’s surface and the ozone layer. This will lead to increased temperatures that will result in global warming. It is predicted that continuous use of fossil fuel will keep on increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. According to Simon (2009 ), the more the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the more the heat that will be trapped hence increased temperature. Electricity plants and transportation sectors have been shown to be the leading producers of carbon dioxide. In a meeting held in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, the developed nations agreed that high carbon dioxide levels are of great concern and it poses a serious threat to the atmosphere (Knox and Douglas 2010). As a result, the developed nations agreed jointly to reduce carbon dioxide levels.

Influence of fossil fuels

Use of fossil fuel also adds other oxides like sulphur oxides and nitrous oxides in the atmosphere. Ones in the atmosphere, the gases combine with water and fall back on earth as acid rain. The rain has far reaching consequences on the natural flora. Some of the flora grows best at a particular pH. Change in pH as a result of acid rain will mean the plant will become extinct with time. Increased industries also supply a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Although most of the pollution occurs in developed countries, the poor third world countries are the ones affected by such pollution. Most of the industrialized countries have set in place measures that aid in curbing air pollution from different industries. At the moment, we may not be experiencing the full impacts of increased environmental pollution, but one thing we can be sure of, the repercussions are on the way. According to Spring, all air pollutants that result after burning fossil fuel can be removed with the exception of carbon dioxide gas (2007). Though the measures of filtering the products of fossil fuels may appear expensive for now, the effects of these products are much more damaging. This therefore raises the question on whether we should do away with fossil fuels.

Other by products associated with burning fossil fuels include carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, dust and soot. Increased levels of carbon monoxide are associated with headache. The gas is also poisonous. The hydrocarbons are known to take part in the formation of smog which is also a health hazard. Coal fuels contain toxic metal products like mercury, lead and arsenic. The toxic metals though low in levels, with time; they accumulate in the fatty tissue to pose a health risk.

Nuclear power

Nuclear power stations also pose a great threat to the environment. Despite of the fact that most of the nuclear plants do not emit pollutants in the air like fossil fuels, they have also a great risk on the environment. Both mechanical and human errors in such pants can lead to catastrophic effects (Knox and Douglas 2010). Although such instances occurring are very low, but in case it happens,  its effects to the environment are long lasting. For instance, the Chernobyl accident that happened in 1986 is still being felt to the present. The plant also spends a lot of fuel in order to maintain their day to day activities. The result of combustion of such fuel will go on polluting the environment. Radioactive wastes are produced and they are detrimental to the environment. In addition, the radioactive wastes are not easily disposed off meaning they will have to remain on the environment for a long period of time.

Wood fuel

The continued use of wood fuel mostly in developing countries has led to massive destruction of forests.  Forests play an important role in balancing the ecosystem. Plants have a role in the energy balance. As discussed earlier, plants use carbon dioxide as their raw materials for photosynthesis. Therefore, plants help in regulating the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In addition, the moisture released by plants creates convectional currents that will later form rain.  All these function of trees are under threat unless necessary measures are put in place to curb the increased levels of forest destruction. Wood is used directly as firewood or sometimes burned to charcoal before being used by most people in developing countries. Wood and charcoal still remains a major source of energy in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Alternative energy

Considering the potential risks posed by the factors discussed on the energy balance system, there is need for measures to be designed to help curb the impeding dangers. Fossil fuel has been cited as the main threat to the environment. This therefore calls for measures to be implemented that perhaps may replace fossil fuel. Such measure may include the use of alternative energy sources. Such sources are discussed below.

Hydropower

Nations should be advised to shift their interest to hydropower. This will mean water power will be used in driving the turbines to generate power. Use of hydropower is environmentally friendly as there no waste products generated as the case is with electric power. According to Riebek, the use of hydropower has been on the increase of late with a reported expansion rate of 4% annually (2010). He argues that there is great potential in hydropower with millions of megawatts being predicted. Therefore if such idea is implemented full, the level of pollution will subside drastically.

Solar energy

The use of solar energy has also been identified as energy source that cause less pollution to the environment. Though its use at the moment is small globally, if right policies are put in place, it can become vital when it comes to energy supply (Spring 2007). Solar energy is natural and needs to be harnessed in order to produce the required energy. It is a clean source of energy as it does not emit any particles in the atmosphere. At the moment, use of solar heaters to heat water is widespread in many parts of the world such as Australia, Middle East and Greece. Several countries are have implemented solar energy programs. Increased use of solar energy will lower the use of fossil fuels hence reduced pollution to the environment.

Geothermal energy

Geothermal energy can also be an alternative energy source. Compared to fossil fuel, it is more environmental friendly. Geothermal power entails harnessing hot springs, geysers, volcanic eruption among others. Since it uses naturally occurring phenomenon, it does not pollute the environment (Simon 2009). The use of geothermal power has been on the rise globally at a rate of 15% annually in not only industrial countries but also in developing countries. Since most of the countries have been investigating on geothermal power, it is expected that the experience gained can help in facilitating the setting up of more geothermal powers.

Windmillls

Use of windmills to generate energy can also help in lowering the levels of fossil fuel use. As a result, there will be decreased levels of environmental pollution. Use of wind power has been used since time immemorial for pumping water. Despite of its early invention, its use is not wide spread. As a measure of controlling environmental pollution, some countries have of late has implemented wind mill programs (Dansten 2007).  This is believed to provide a cheap and environmental friendly source of fuel.

Conclusion

In conclusion, energy balance plays a vital role in the existence of not only human beings but also other living creatures. The maintenance of the energy balance needs a constant level of greenhouse gases. The increase of greenhouse gases will topple the existing balance. But since the increase in such gases is as a result of human activities, man has no choice but to look for ways of minimizing such gases no matter the cost.

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