Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases. The main greenhouse gases are:
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas emitted through human activities. In 2010, CO2 accounted for about 84% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Carbon dioxide is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth's carbon cycle (the natural circulation of carbon among the atmosphere, oceans, soil, plants, and animals). Human activities are altering the carbon cycle--both by adding more CO2 to the atmosphere and by influencing the ability of natural sinks, like forests, to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While CO2 emissions come from a variety of natural sources, human-related emissions are responsible for the increase that has occurred in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution.
Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities. In 2010, CH4 accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Methane is emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, as well as human activities such as leakage from natural gas systems and the raising of livestock. Natural processes in soil and chemical reactions in the atmosphere help remove CH4 from the atmosphere. Methane's lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but CH4 is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. Globally, over 60% of total CH4 emissions come from human activities.
Nitrous Oxide (N2O)
In 2010, nitrous oxide (N2O) accounted for about 4% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Nitrous oxide is naturally present in the atmosphere as part of the Earth's nitrogen cycle, and has a variety of natural sources. However, human activities such as agriculture, fossil fuel combustion, wastewater management, and industrial processes are increasing the amount of N2O in the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide molecules stay in the atmosphere for an average of 120 years before being removed by a sink or destroyed through chemical reactions. The impact of 1 pound of N2O on warming the atmosphere is over 300 times that of 1 pound of carbon dioxide. Globally, about 40% of total N2O emissions come from human activities.
Unlike many other greenhouse gases, fluorinated gases have no natural sources and only come from human-related activities. They are emitted through a variety of industrial processes such as aluminum and semiconductor manufacturing. Many fluorinated gases have very high global warming potentials (GWPs) relative to other greenhouse gases, so small atmospheric concentrations can have large effects on global temperatures. They can also have long atmospheric lifetimes--in some cases, lasting thousands of years. Like other long-lived greenhouse gases, fluorinated gases are well-mixed in the atmosphere, spreading around the world after they're emitted. Fluorinated gases are removed from the atmosphere only when they are destroyed by sunlight in the far upper atmosphere. In general, fluorinated gases are the most potent and longest lasting type of greenhouse gases emitted by human activities. There are three main categories of fluorinated gases--hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6).