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Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution // Section 2: Chemicals in Motion


The science of air pollution centers on measuring, tracking, and predicting concentrations of key chemicals in the atmosphere. Four types of processes affect air pollution levels (Fig. 2):

Processes related to atmospheric composition

Figure 2. Processes related to atmospheric composition
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Source: Courtesy United States Climate Change Science Program (Illustrated by P. Rekacewicz).

Air pollution trends are strongly affected by atmospheric conditions such as temperature, pressure, and humidity, and by global circulation patterns. For example, winds carry some pollutants far from their sources across national boundaries and even across the oceans. Transport is fastest along east-west routes: longitudinal winds can move air around the globe in a few weeks, compared to months or longer for air exchanges from north to south (for more details see Unit 2, "Atmosphere").

Local weather patterns also interact with and affect air pollution. Rain and snow carry atmospheric pollutants to Earth. Temperature inversions, like the conditions that caused London's Great Smog in 1952, occur when air near the Earth's surface is colder than air aloft. Cold air is heavier than warm air, so temperature inversions limit vertical mixing and trap pollutants near Earth's surface. Such conditions are often found at night and during the winter months. Stagnation events characterized by weak winds are frequent during summer and can lead to accumulation of pollutants over several days.

To see the close connections between weather, climate, and air pollution, consider Los Angeles, whose severe air quality problems stem partly from its physical setting and weather patterns. Los Angeles sits in a bowl, ringed by mountains to the north and east that trap pollutants in the urban basin. In warm weather, cool sea breezes are drawn onshore at ground level, creating temperature inversions that prevent pollutants from rising and dissipating. The region's diverse manufacturing and industrial emitters and millions of cars and trucks produce copious primary air pollutants that mix in its air space to form photochemical smog (Fig. 3).

Smog over Los Angeles

Figure 3. Smog over Los Angeles
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Source: Courtesy United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Scientists can measure air pollutants directly when they are emitted—for example, by placing instruments on factory smokestacks—or as concentrations in the ambient outdoor air. To track ambient concentrations, researchers create networks of air-monitoring stations, which can be ground-based or mounted on vehicles, balloons, airplanes, or satellites.

In the laboratory, scientists use tools including laser spectrometers and electron microscopes to identify specific pollutants. They measure chemical reaction rates in clear plastic bags ("smog chambers") that replicate the smog environment under controlled conditions, and observe emission of pollutants from combustion and other sources.

Knowledge of pollutant emissions, chemistry, and transport can be incorporated into computer simulations ("air quality models") to predict how specific actions, such as requiring new vehicle emission controls or cleaner-burning fuels, will benefit ambient air quality. However, air pollutants pass through many complex reactions in the atmosphere and their residence times vary widely, so it is not always straightforward to estimate how emission reductions from specific sources will impact air quality over time.

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