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Atmospheric Composition

Air

Air is a mixture of gases and aerosols that composes the atmosphere surrounding Earth. The primary gases of air include nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). Trace gases and aerosols make up the remaining 1% of air. The trace gases include the noble gases argon, neon, helium, krypton and xenon; hydrogen; and the greenhouse gases. The aerosols are solid or liquid particles having diameters in the region of 0.001 to 10 microns (millionth of a metre), and include dust, soot, sea salt crystals, spores, bacteria, viruses and a plethora of other microscopic particles, which may be natural or man-made.

Earth maintains an atmosphere through its gravitational pull. Consequently, most air is found in the lowest 10 kilometres of the atmosphere. Experienced mountain climbers are aware of how thin the air becomes, and may carry oxygen tanks to assist breathing at high altitudes. Within the lower atmosphere, however, air remains remarkably uniform in composition, as a result of efficient recycling processes and turbulent mixing in the atmosphere.

Atmospheric Gases

There are a number of atmospheric gases which make up air. The main gases are nitrogen and oxygen, which make up 78% and 21% of the volume of air respectively. Oxygen is utilised primarily by animals, including humans, but also to a small degree by plants, in the process of respiration (the metabolism of food products to generate energy).

The remaining 1% of the atmospheric gases is made up of trace gases. These include the noble gases, very inert or unreactive gases, of which the most abundant is argon. Other noble gases include neon, helium, krypton and xenon. Hydrogen is also present in trace quantities in the atmosphere, but because it is so light, over time much of it has escaped Earth's gravitational pull to space.

The remaining trace gases include the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapour and ozone, so-called because they are involved in the Earth natural greenhouse effect which keeps the planet warmer than it would be without an atmosphere.

Oxygen

The gas oxygen (O2), composed of molecules of two oxygen atoms, occupies 21% of the Earth's atmosphere by volume. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Oxygen also comprises 86% of the oceans and 60% of the human body, and is the third most abundant element found in the Sun. Almost all plants and animals require oxygen for respiration to maintain life.

Oxygen is very reactive and oxides of most elements are known. A chemical reaction in which an oxide is formed is known as oxidation. The rate at which oxidation occurs varies with the element with which oxygen is reacting. Rust, or iron oxide, for example forms relatively slowly, over days or weeks. Burning or combustion, however, involves a very rapid oxidation. Carbon in fossil fuels, for example, can be quickly oxidised to carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, with a considerable amount of heat being given off. We can convert this heat into useful energy for heating, electricity and locomotion.

Within the stratosphere, oxygen molecules combine with free oxygen atoms to form ozone (O3). Ozone absorbs ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the Sun, and protects life on Earth from its damaging effect. Although abundant between 19 and 30 km altitude, the air at these levels in the atmosphere is thin. If all the ozone in the stratosphere was compressed to ordinary atmosphere pressure at ground level, it would occupy a layer only 3 mm thick.

Nitrogen

The gas nitrogen (N2), composed of molecules of two nitrogen atoms, occupies 78% of the Earth's atmosphere. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. Nitrogen is as important as it is common. It's essential to the nutrition of plants and animals. Nitrogen is a constituent in all proteins and in the genetic material (DNA) in all organisms.

The low content of nitrogen in most soils exists in stark contrast to the abundance of nitrogen in air. This is because gaseous nitrogen molecules have very strong bonds linking the atoms together, making the gas chemically stable and unusable by most biological organisms. Some species of bacteria absorb nitrogen from the air and convert it into ammonium, which plants can use. This process, called nitrogen fixation, is the principal natural means by which atmospheric nitrogen is added to the soil. Legumes, such as beans, can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. This is accomplished by nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in nodules on the plant roots.

Nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere can also be broken by the energy generated by lightning strikes and volcanic action. Whenever lightning flashes in the atmosphere, some nitrogen combines with oxygen and forms the gas nitric oxide (NO). This nitric oxide is converted to nitric acid, which is highly soluble in water and falls to the ground in rainwater, to be absorbed by soils. Globally, however, nitrogen-fixing bacteria are a far more significant source of fixed nitrogen.

Trace Gases

Most of our atmosphere is made up of nitrogen (78% by volume) and oxygen (21% by volume). The remaining 1% of the atmospheric gases are known as trace gases because they are present in such small concentrations. The most abundant of the trace gases is the noble gas argon (approximately 1% by volume). Noble gases, which also include neon, helium, krypton and xenon, are very inert and do not generally engage in any chemical transformation within the atmosphere. Hydrogen is also present in trace quantities in the atmosphere, but because it is so light, over time much of it has escaped Earth's gravitational pull to space.

Despite their relative scarcity, the most important trace gases in the Earth's atmosphere are the greenhouse gases. Most abundant in the troposphere, these gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, water vapour and ozone, so-called because they are involved in the Earth natural greenhouse effect which keeps the planet warmer than it would be without an atmosphere. Apart from water vapour, the most abundant greenhouse gas (by volume) is carbon dioxide. Despite being present in only 380 parts per million by volume of air, carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases help to keep the Earth 33�C warmer than it would otherwise be without an atmosphere. Through emissions of greenhouse gases however, mankind has enhanced with natural greenhouse effect which may now be leading to a warming of the Earth climate.

Whilst ozone behaves like a greenhouse gas in the troposphere, in the stratosphere where its abundance is most significant within the ozone layer, it helps to filter out the incoming ultraviolet radiation from the Sun, protecting life on Earth from its harmful effects. Air within the stratosphere is thin however. If all the ozone in the stratosphere was compressed to ordinary atmosphere pressure at ground level, it would occupy a layer only 3 mm thick.

Other trace gases in the atmosphere arise from natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes and forest fires. Gases from these sources include nitric oxide (NO) and sulphur dioxide (SO2). In addition to natural sources of nitric oxide and sulphur dioxide there are now many man-made sources, including pollutant emissions from cars, agriculture and electricity generation through the burning of fossil fuels. During the 20th century other man-made processes have put completely new trace gases into the atmosphere, for example the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which damage the ozone layer.

Aerosols

Aerosols are solid or liquid particles dispersed in the air, and include dust, soot, sea salt crystals, spores, bacteria, viruses and a plethora of other microscopic particles. Collectively, they are often regarded as air pollution, but many of the aerosols have a natural origin. They are conventionally defined as those particles suspended in air having diameters in the region of 0.001 to 10 microns (millionth of a metre). They are formed by the dispersal of material at the surface (primary aerosols), or by reaction of gases in the atmosphere (secondary aerosols). Primary aerosols include volcanic dust, organic materials from biomass burning, soot from combustion and mineral dust from wind-blown processes. Secondary aerosols include sulphates from the oxidation of sulphur-containing gases during the burning of fossil fuels, nitrates from gaseous nitrogen species, and products from the oxidation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Although making up only 1 part in a billion of the mass of the atmosphere, they have the potential to significantly influence the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth�s surface, and therefore the Earth's climate.

Although the abundance of aerosols varies over short time scales, for example after a volcanic eruption, over the long term the atmosphere is naturally cleansed through mixing processes and rainfall. Cleansing is never complete however, and there exists a natural background level of aerosols in the atmosphere. The average time spent in the atmosphere by aerosols is dependent upon their physical and chemical characteristics, and the time and location of their release. Natural sources of aerosols are probably 4 to 5 times larger than man-made ones on a global scale, but regional variations of man-made aerosol emissions may change this ratio significantly in certain areas, particularly in the industrialised Northern Hemisphere. At certain times of the year, the natural background level of aerosols may increase, for example, during the growing season, when large quantities of pollen are released into the atmosphere.