There is not one substance or process by which heat is retained, but several. A few, briefly, are reflection, heat retention, and insulation.
Reflection: Much of the light hitting the earth is reflected, and the gas and water particles in the atmosphere reflect it back, retaining the energy.
Heat retention: Light hitting the earth (even when reflecting) emparts some energy as heat, which is absorbed by the air, water, and earth. The heated materials retain the heat and gradually release it to space.
Insulation: The atmosphere further ‘traps’ the heat by acting as an insulation layer, increasing the ability for the earth to retain its heat.
Absorption by clouds and aerosol particles in the atmosphere also retains heat and leads to warming.
The oceans and the atmosphere. Anything that can get warmed up when it gets hit directly by sunlight. Snow melting in the sun is an example of heat retention, but it won’t do nearly as good of a job (because of the reflection, as was noted by commonsense above) as say a black-tar rooftop or asphalt-concrete. An example of human constructed structures (non naturally forming elements of earth’s atmosphere) absorbing heat is the urban island heat effect. This is not good. We need to go white top or green roof (I’m talking about making every rooftop either reflective, solar powered, or a garden oasis—how much would it cost, man? TO SAVE THE WORLD…)
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