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Unit 11: Atmospheric Pollution // Section 5: Aerosols

In addition to gases, the atmosphere contains solid and liquid particles that are suspended in the air. These particles are referred to as aerosols or particulate matter (PM). Aerosols in the atmosphere typically measure between 0.01 and 10 micrometers in diameter, a fraction of the width of a human hair (Fig. 6). Most aerosols are found in the lower troposphere, where they have a residence time of a few days. They are removed when rain or snow carries them out of the atmosphere or when larger particles settle out of suspension due to gravity.

Size comparisons for aerosol pollution

Figure 6. Size comparisons for aerosol pollution
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Source: Courtesy United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Large aerosol particles (usually 1 to 10 micrometers in diameter) are generated when winds blow sea salt, dust, and other debris into the atmosphere. Fine aerosol particles with diameters less than 1 micrometer are mainly produced when precursor gases condense in the atmosphere. Major components of fine aerosols are sulfate, nitrate, organic carbon, and elemental carbon. Sulfate, nitrate, and organic carbon particles are produced by atmospheric oxidation of SO2, NOx, and VOCs as discussed above in Section 3. Elemental carbon particles are emitted by combustion, which is also a major source of organic carbon particles. Light-absorbing carbon particles emitted by combustion are called black carbon or soot; they are important agents for climate change and are also suspected to be particularly hazardous for human health.

High concentrations of aerosols are a major cause of cardiovascular disease and are also suspected to cause cancer. Fine particles are especially serious threats because they are small enough to be absorbed deeply into the lungs, and sometimes even into the bloodstream. Scientific research into the negative health effects of fine particulate air pollution spurred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits in 1987 for exposure to particles with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, and in 1997 for particles with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less.

Aerosols also have important radiative effects in the atmosphere. Particles are said to scatter light when they alter the direction of radiation beams without absorbing radiation. This is the principal mechanism limiting visibility in the atmosphere, as it prevents us from distinguishing an object from the background. Air molecules are inefficient scatterers because their sizes are orders of magnitude smaller than the wavelengths of visible radiation (0.4 to 0.7 micrometers). Aerosol particles, by contrast, are efficient scatterers. When relative humidity is high, aerosols absorb water, which causes them to swell and increases their cross-sectional area for scattering, creating haze. Without aerosol pollution our visual range would typically be about 200 miles, but haze can reduce visibility significantly. Figure 7 shows two contrasting views of Acadia National Park in Maine on relatively good and bad air days.

Haze pollution, Acadia National Park, Maine

Figure 7. Haze pollution, Acadia National Park, Maine
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Source: Courtesy NESCAUM, from

Aerosols have a cooling effect on Earth's climate when they scatter solar radiation because some of the scattered light is reflected back into space. As discussed in Unit 12, "Earth's Changing Climate," major volcanic eruptions that inject large quantities of aerosols into the stratosphere, such as that of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, can noticeably reduce average global surface temperatures for some time afterward.

In contrast, some aerosol particles such as soot absorb radiation and have a warming effect. This means that estimating the net direct contribution to global climate change from aerosols requires detailed inventories of the types of aerosols in the atmosphere and their distribution around the globe. Aerosol particles also influence Earth's climate indirectly: they serve as condensation nuclei for cloud droplets, increasing the amount of radiation reflected back into space by clouds and modifying the ability of clouds to precipitate. The latter is the idea behind "cloud seeding" in desert areas, where specific kinds of mineral aerosol particles that promote ice formation are injected into a cloud to make it precipitate.

Aerosol concentrations vary widely around the Earth (Fig. 8). Measurements are tricky because the particles are difficult to collect without modifying their composition. Combined optical and mass spectrometry techniques that analyze the composition of single particles directly in an air flow, rather than recovering a bulk composition from filters, have improved scientists' ability to detect and characterize aerosols (footnote 1).

Total ozone mapping spectrometer (TOMS) aerosol index of smoke and dust absorption, 2004

Figure 8. Total ozone mapping spectrometer (TOMS) aerosol index of smoke and dust absorption, 2004
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Source: Courtesy Jay Herman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

One important research challenge is learning more about organic aerosols, which typically account for a third to half of total aerosol mass. These include many types of carbon compounds with diverse properties and environmental impacts. Organic aerosols are emitted to the atmosphere directly by inefficient combustion. Automobiles, wood stoves, agricultural fires, and wildfires are major sources in the United States. Atmospheric oxidation of VOCs, both anthropogenic and biogenic, is another major source in summer. The relative importance of these different sources is still highly uncertain, which presently limits our ability to assess anthropogenic influence and develop strategies for reducing concentrations.

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