All About Air

In this article we are learning about the air in some of the different types of places we travel. Learn about how air in the forest differs from air in the desert, why mountain air is different from the air at sea. To kick us off, a poem about spring air, from the Japanese haiku master, Matsuo Basho:

The spring haze. 

The scent already in the air. 

The moon and ume. 

Forest Air

It’s no secret that we feel relaxed when we walk in the woods. But it’s not just the beautiful scenery that helps take our mind off things. Trees emit chemicals called phytoncides that improve immune function and lower nervous system activity. 

Phytoncides are airborne chemicals that act as a tree's defense system against attacking organisms like bacteria and fungi. They essentially form an atmospheric barrier around the tree that, when inhaled, increases the levels of natural killer (NK) cells in the human immune system while also reducing cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline levels. There are thousands of types of phytoncides with different beneficial properties. For instance, phytoncide alpha-pinene has been shown to enhance sleep and beta-pinene has antidepressant properties. 

The human health benefits of phytoncides were first identified by Dr. Qing Li, author of Forest Bathing (in Japanese - Shinrin-Yoku). Forest bathing is the physiological and psychological exercise of “taking in the forest atmosphere” and has become a form of ecotherapy. Although originating in Japan, you can practice forest bathing anywhere in the world. Evergreens native to the Adirondack mountain range have been shown to release very high concentrations of phytoncides, but all species of trees produce phytoncides beneficial to human health. 

Tropical Air

Although it might not be the most popular or the most dangerous, water vapor is actually the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Water vapor accounts for about 4 percent of the atmosphere, whereas carbon dioxide only accounts for 0.4 percent. Arguably the most tangible gas in the atmosphere, we can feel it on our skin as humidity, watch it condense as clouds and fall as rain we often forget that it influences the greenhouse effect just like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. 

Airplane contrails streaking across a blue sky are formed from water vapor, which makes up about thirty percent of jet fuel exhaust. The water vapor in a plane’s exhaust instantly freezes when the ambient temperature is cold enough. If the atmosphere is both humid and cold, the small ice crystals in the vapor expand and are sustained as contrails that can spread horizontally and vertically to form contrail-induced cirrus clouds. 

These lingering contrails and contrail-induced cirrus clouds trap infrared rays, producing a warming effect up to 3 times the impact of carbon dioxide. These cirrus clouds may last only a few hours, but collectively their influence, produced by thousands of flights, has a serious warming effect. The effect is so large in fact that today it exceeds the total warming influence of all the CO2 emitted by aircrafts since the beginning of powered flight. 

Photo by Danny Ciucci

Water vapor accounts for about 66 to 85 percent of the greenhouse effect, whereas carbon dioxide accounts for 9 to 26 percent. 

Without water vapor, Earth’s surface temperature would be about 30 degrees celsius cooler.

Amazonas, in northern Peru. Photo by Matt Corliss with permission from Adventure Travel Trade Association

Desert Air 

A lack of water vapor in the air results in dry, arid air. In desert regions the air feels hot and dry. It’s easier to get sunburned and people may sweat less because water vapor evaporates quicker in this environment. Temperatures exhibit daily extremes because of the lack of humidity to block the sun's rays. 

Desert surfaces receive a little more than twice the solar radiation received by humid regions and lose almost twice as much heat at night.  

Mountain Air

As anyone who has spent time in the mountains know, rain and snow give the air a fresh, clean feeling. This is because rain and snow have the ability to cleanse our atmosphere of harmful aerosols. The air feels fresher after it rains because when a water droplet falls to the atmosphere it can attract tens to hundreds of tiny aerosol particles to its surface before hitting the ground. 

When snowflakes collect large amounts of soot or dust, the snowfall can appear gray or brown. The darker surface absorbs more sunlight causing it to melt faster than white snow. In the alps and polar regions snowflakes can also collect Chlamydomonas nivalis, a red-colored algae that turns the snowpack pink. 

The Air at Sea

One of the most interesting ways to explore the air at sea is through the story of Elliott Smith, the youngest contestant to attempt the Golden Globe Race (GGR). The GGR is a ‘retro race’ where entrants must sail solo, non-stop around the world without modern technology or satellite navigation. Over the span of 5 months, Elliott sailed from Massachusetts to France and then non-stop from France to Australia. 

Without modern navigation systems or external communication, contestants must rely on their celestial navigation skills to determine their placement in the ocean. After weeks at sea, Elliott’s senses became attuned to shifts in atmospheric pressures indicative of storms and the proximity to land. 

In our interview he describes this phenomena, “Every time I got close to land I could smell it from about a day or two away. You don’t realize the smells of our earth, it’s earthy green almost like seaweed. It’s a good subtle smell as you approach land after a long time.” After 4 months at sea, Elliott ended his journey in Australia when his bowsprit broke off the coast of South Africa.

The more we understand our air, the more we can appreciate it and see the benefits of cleaning it of excess carbon dioxide.

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