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How is Earth’s Atmosphere faring nowadays? Is it our breath of life or our wheeze of death?
Via satellites and planes, we explore the atmosphere. In essence, it’s part of our daily lives; there is little that we do in which the atmosphere, with the carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, oxygen, weather, and so on, doesn’t play a role in some way. Likewise, the bulk of human activity shapes our atmosphere and, by extension, our world. Our atmosphere is the protective envelope of the Earth as we’ve seen, no other planet, to our knowledge, has such a hospitable background for life.
(Audit of the Universe chapter 2.1)
How, exactly, is human life-changing the atmosphere, and specifically the Earth’s climate, for good or bad? The stories in this chapter will unfold and “air” all the evidence.
Galacti is once again our tour guide/real estate agent. “I’m afraid Earth is a bit of a fixer-upper these days,” he says.
“What happening?” I ask.
“Ah…well, do you see that unobstructed view of Alaska in June, and Beijing all year round?”
“I can’t see Beijing because of smog. What happened?” I repeat my question.
“Let’s start by examining what has happened to the three components of the atmosphere,” Galacti says. “In our last tour, it was all about location, location, and location. Now it’s climate, climate, and climate!”
From Heart attack to Fertilizer: Nitrogen Impact
Nitrogen is essential for all life. If you are a heart patient taking nitroglycerin pills, you have an excellent idea of how we need nitrogen. People who have high blood pressure and are at high risk for heart attack or angina (chest pain) carry nitroglycerin pills, tablets, patches, tongue spray and ointment with tape for application with them at all times, to take at the first sign of trouble.
It is dispersed in a capsule, so you can’t blow anything up with these pills. What the nitroglycerin does is dilate the blood vessels, which reduces the blood flow to the heart and creates a drop in blood pressure in the arteries, so that the heart does not pump as hard—less blood and oxygen needed, the heart calms down, the heart relaxes. Nitrogen, in this case, can save lives.
“That’s the practical application of nitrogen,” Galacti says. “On this planet, you have creative people who think of these things.”
However, you can have too much of a good thing. In essence, human activities now remove more nitrogen from the atmosphere than all natural processes combined, and much of this nitrogen ends up as a pollutant. A particularly serious problem is nitrate pollution from agricultural runoff in ground and surface water supplies, which can not only poison humans and other living creatures drinking polluted waters.Human activities now remove more nitrogen from the atmosphere than all natural processes combined, and much of this nitrogen ends up as a pollutant Click To Tweet
It can also significantly change freshwater and marine ecosystems, creating dead zones (more on this in the next chapter) and poisoning fish. An excess of nitrogen oxides from traffic emissions combines with other pollutants from industry as well as hot weather and forms ozone, a pollutant, and protectant (the proverbial ozone layer).
“Here we are at our first stop,” Galacti says.
We join scientists at a floating laboratory in the Indian Ocean, in a narrow shipping lane between Sri Lanka and Singapore. We aren’t here to contemplate the view of the water, but rather to consider the orange trails of nitrous oxide or NOx we see. The scientists are tracking the pathways of nitrous oxide and excess ozone across the globe. But, because of the clarity of the air here, it is easier to see nitrous oxide trails than along the coast of, say, industrialized oil-drilling China or the United States (most of the scientists on this floating laboratory work for NASA).
There are many examples of NOx pollution. Coal-burning factories, agricultural emissions, transportation, and medical factories produce the equivalent weight of 100 Empire State Buildings of NOx gas in the air annually. It is worldwide and specifically in high-emission countries such as the US, China, Brazil, India, and Russia.
There’s a recommended limit for exposure to the planet: The Kyoto Protocol recognizes nitrous oxide in the atmosphere as being 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. “In this neighborhood we have standards—you can’t just pollute,” Galacti says. “When there’s overexposure, especially if we don’t have sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere—nitrous oxide destroys the beneficial ozone as well, bringing about change in global temperatures.”
Selling Air: Oxygen
As we’ve seen, our blood carries oxygen, once called fire air, throughout our bodies and is a crucial ingredient in biological life, in photosynthesis and respiration, in carbohydrates, fats, fatty acids, amino acids, and proteins. We know that oxygen is essential for life/breath, and also generating energy in cells, but oxygen deserves praise beyond that.
“Our next stop is an oxygen bar in Vegas, and then on to Beijing,” Galacti announces.
The world record for a person to hold their breath was set by Stig Aqauman Severinsen, when he held his breath for 22 minutes. Most of us can handle a few seconds to a minute or so. Under stress it’s even less than that. The composition of the air, the temperature, and the consistency (altitude) impact the amount of time people can hold their breath.
Many athletes train at high altitudes to develop their lung power. Astronauts wearing spacesuits and swimmers wearing diving suits remind us that outside our surface environment, hostility waits, and we must be prepared to navigate these alien regions that are not hospitable to human life.
We humans can’t survive without oxygen, and to that end, we spend money on treatments at oxygen bars, establishments around the world where we receive oxygen treatments in all different colors. You would think we would get more than enough oxygen in our daily lives because we all breathe the same air—however, that’s precisely the problem! Industrialized and not-so-advanced cities are battling the same issues: Beijing, China, London, England, Ludhiana in India, Ahwaz in Iran, and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.
“Welcome to Beijing, China,” Galacti says. “Home of the Forbidden City. Please put on your air pollution masks now. You will notice that in this neighborhood, everyone wears these masks.” The city regularly exceeds accepted levels of fine particles—less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) in diameter. They are so small you need an electron microscope to detect them. They’re produced by all types of combustion like motor vehicles, coal-burning, and other power plants, residential wood burning, agricultural burning, forest fires, and many other industrial processes.
In response to warnings from the World Health Organization that the air in Beijing and Northern China has exceeded international air quality standards, a Chinese multimillionaire is selling oxygen in colorful soft drink aluminum cans.
“Wow, that sounds as if he is taking advantage of the situation,” Galacti comments. “On the other hand, I’ve heard he wants to draw attention to what you humans are doing to the air. Can of air, anyone? You’ll need it to live in Beijing. We can make a deal…”
The measurements in Beijing can be as disturbing as the London Fog, also dubbed the Great Smog of 1952 in which 4,000 people died—mainly elderly and young people, as well as those with respiratory and heart ailments, with 8,000 more deaths in the weeks following the miasma.
It was a perfect storm of exceptionally high coal-burning byproducts with particulate matter 56 times normal levels of the period, of smoke, sulfur dioxide, sulphuric acid, fluorine compounds, and hydrochloric acids. All known industrial pollutants, combined with near-zero temperatures, high pressure, and mild winds that trapped the smog in the city for several days.
How certain can we be that pollution was the cause of squeezing out the oxygen? In 1956 Britain passed the Clean Air Act that established smokeless zones. Other legislation followed to prevent such a dire situation from occurring again. The smog was so bad that the environmental movement was born.
Sadly, London today is still smog-filled, and 4,000 people die yearly from harmful pollutants.
“You’ll notice a thick nasty haze blocking the plains of Northern China (as well as London), so what the Chinese billionaire is doing to sound the alarm about the problem is a noble goal,” Galacti says. “But if you’re looking for clean air, let’s do some more searching and see if we find some. Where does all the pollution come from?” Is the can half-empty or half-full?Where does all the air pollution come from? Click To Tweet
This blog post is an excerpt from chapter 2.1 from the book Audit of the Universe.
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