Earth-Sun Relationship
The Sun & its Energy
Earth & its Atmosphere
Solar Radiation in the Atmosphere
Atmospheric Environmental Concerns
Ozone Depletion
Global Climate Change
Regional Concerns
Internet Links
Other Resources
Atmospheric System PDF
Printer-Friendly Web Version

Atmospheric Environmental Concerns

Air pollution problems occur due to the presence and movement of pollutants within and among the layers within the atmosphere. The location of the pollutants in a certain layer is an important factor in determining what type of air pollution problem may occur. For the most part, the polluting molecules are heavier than air and circulate in the troposphere. A general description of these are given earlier. The different species of molecules remain in the troposphere for different amounts of time depending upon their amount, reactivity, and local weather patterns. It is the non-reactivity of chlorofluorocarbons that result in their drifting through the troposphere and finding their way tot he stratosphere. Most of the CFC's do remain in the upper part of the troposphere due to their weight. However very little ultraviolet reaches here because of the stratospheric ozone layer. Recall that their ability to disrupt the ozone layer occurs due to ultraviolet knocking off a chlorine atom. So this does not happen in the troposphere. Otherwise we might have other problems stemming from free highly reactive chlorine in the troposphere!

The fastest transport of gases in the atmosphere occurs in the troposphere. This is the region where the circulation patterns leading to the daily weather and eventually the climate conditions occurs. The water cycle (described in the Materials System) occurs between the earth (particularly oceans and other bodies of water) and the lower half of the troposphere. The troposphere extends to about 9.5 miles (15 km) from the Earth's surface. When pilots announce the altitude of an airplane flight and you are above the clouds, it is usually at 30000 - 35000 feet which is about 5 - 6 miles. So the cloud activity is generally in the lowest part of the atmosphere. Even with the faster circulation in the troposphere, on the average, a water molecules spends about 9 days in the atmosphere once it gets released from the water bodies of the earth. This is called the residence time of the molecule in the water. Molecules like CFC's on the other hand have residence times varying from 60 years to hundreds of years!

Some of the effects of pollutants in the atmosphere are global, some regional, and some local, depending on the layer at which they primarily circulate, which in turn depends on how heavy the molecule is, its reactivity, and what the circulation patterns are.

Climate change, indicated by the so-called greenhouse gases and stratospheric ozone depletion are global in nature. Acid precipitation (or acid rain) due to release of oxides of sulfur and nitrogen from fossil fuel combustion is regional, and affects areas up to hundreds of miles from the sources. Tropospheric (or ground-level) ozone concentrations, air pollution from CO, NO2, and SO2, and heat island effects arising from the interaction of pollution with sunlight or with local circulation patterns set up by buildings are local in nature and vary daily. These effects are now described in more detail.




  ©Copyright 2003 Carnegie Mellon University
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number 9653194. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.