The air in our atmosphere is mostly made up of two gases that are essential for life on Earth: nitrogen and oxygen. However, the air also contains smaller amounts of many other gases and particles. Air quality is measured with the Air Quality Index. Similar to a thermometer that runs from 0 to 500 degrees, the Air Quality Index shows changes in the amount of pollution in the air instead of temperature.
AQI tracks five major air pollutants:
One beautiful sign of clean air is the presence of beard moss and lichen. These plants are very sensitive to air pollution. In Finland there are more than twenty types, recognizable from their distinctive threadlike stems that dangle from tree branches like tufts of hair. (The air in Finland is the best in the world, according to information from the World Health Organization.)
We All Share The Same Air
Instruments on the ground and satellites orbiting Earth collect information about what is in our air, including information about particles such as smoke particles from wildfires; airborne dust during dust and sand storms; urban and industrial pollution; and ash from erupting volcanoes.
Since our air is always circulating, an event in one part of the world can be felt in other parts of the world far away. During the world famous eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatau volcano in 1883, ash was carried approximately 10,000 miles from Indonesia to the air over New York within 13 days.
More recently, in January, 2022, an undersea volcano near Tonga, in the South Pacific Ocean, blasted an enormous plume of water vapor into the air. Like carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, water vapor absorbs heat in the form of infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface and re-emits it. The addition of a large amount of water vapor would be expected to add to warming for several years until the gas dissipated.
Changes in Climate Affect Local Air Quality
Changes in climate also affect local air quality. One way changes in climate affect local air quality is when the atmospheric warming associated with climate change increases ground-level ozone.
Ground-level ozone, often called smog, forms in the atmosphere when gases from smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes mix in the air. Hotter weather and stagnant air create conditions that make ozone more likely to form. Ozone is a highly reactive and unstable gas capable of damaging living cells, such as those present in the linings of the human lungs.
Local Air Pollution Likewise Affects Climate
Just as changes in our climate impact local air quality, air pollution can also bring about changes in our climate. The World Health Organization recommends countries around the world reduce particulate matter (or PM) concentrations such as dust, soot, dirt, smoke, and liquid droplets. Black carbon, a particulate pollutant from combustion, contributes to the warming of the Earth.
Some types of particulate matter are so tiny - measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter - they can only be seen through an electron microscope. They remain suspended in the air for long periods of time and can be absorbed deep into the bloodstream upon inhalation.
Since 2008 the United States has installed more than 50 air pollution monitors around the world in cities where it has embassies. When a monitor was installed in Beijing, China, the embassy there began tweeting hourly air-quality information, dramatically improving the information on air quality available to Beijing residents. Researchers examining air quality across all 50 cities now estimate that air quality monitoring and reporting led to reductions in fine particulate pollution levels in host countries of 2 to 4 micrograms per cubic meter air.
Over 4 million premature deaths per year are attributed to air pollution, most of which are in places where residents do not have access to reliable information on air quality.
Since most of the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere originates from the burning of fossil fuels which also contain numerous other pollutants, the steps we take to reduce and clean up carbon dioxide pollution will not only benefit our climate, it will also benefit the quality of our air. As travelers when we make decisions to use public transportation or vehicles and accommodation powered by renewable energy we’re help reduce emissions and particulate matter concentrations.
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Although our increasingly unstable climate is not good for anyone, it is well known that our most vulnerable communities tend to bear the brunt of not only the poor air quality climate change can cause but also heat waves, flooding, and other impacts of the climate crisis. Supporting carbon removal not only helps keep our earth’s temperature stable and our planet livable, it improves the quality of the air we breathe and can help bring an end to environmental injustice.
Even if all emissions causing air pollution were to stop tomorrow, the carbon dioxide pollution already stored in our air would take 1000 years to cycle out through natural processes alone. That’s where carbon removal technologies come in, to help clean up these emissions and store them permanently.
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Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, Air Quality and Climate Change Research; U.S. Embassy Air-Quality Tweets Led to Global Health Benefits, PNAS.org