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Six Forgotten Greenhouse Gases

By Laura Dattaro
Published: December 17, 2013

Perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA)

A newly discovered greenhouse gas is, molecule for molecule, more than 7,000 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Click through to see other greenhouse gases. (Photos.com/Getty Images)

Think “greenhouse gas,” and you probably think climate change, plumes of black smoke and carbon dioxide. Which isn’t necessarily wrong, but greenhouse gases are many, varied and necessary — without them, the Earth would be a chilly minus 18 degrees Celsius all over.

“It’s the greenhouse gases that make us warm, that make the atmosphere warm and toasty,” Viney Aneja, professor of air quality at North Carolina State University, told weather.com.

The trouble with greenhouse gases comes when the system gets out of order. A greenhouse gas is merely any gas that absorbs energy in the infrared wavelength, which radiates out from the Earth’s surface. The Earth’s atmosphere naturally contains greenhouse gases, but humans have been producing more of them faster, and have come up with a few new ones of our own. Here we take a look at some of the greenhouses gases of note, other than CO2, and what kind of role they’re playing in our atmosphere.

First up, a newly discovered greenhouse gas.

The newest member of the greenhouse gas team, perfluorotributylamine (PFTBA), is a synthetic gas used mostly in the production of electrical equipment. While its concentration in the atmosphere is quite small — about 0.18 parts per trillion, compared to CO2’s 400 parts per million — molecule for molecule it appears to be 7,100 times more potent than CO2 in terms of effect on climate over a 100-year period, according to new research from the University of Toronto. Worse, there’s no known way to break it down or remove it from the atmosphere, meaning each molecule will likely hang around for hundreds of years — so while the concentration is low today, it will accumulate over time, with effects on health and the environment unknown. “The scientific community needs to go about their business of figuring that out,” Aneja said.

NEXT: Plain ol H20


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