Case Study: How Do Carbon Monoxide and Aerosol

Concentrations Affect Earth's Atmosphere?

Earth's Dynamic Atmosphere

NASA NEO, Global Aerosol Optical Thickness concentrations
acquired using the MODIS sensor, May 2010.

Global Monthly Carbon Monoxide concentrations acquired using the
MOPITT sensor, September 2005. Image from NASA NEO.

Anyone who watches the weather knows that Earth's atmosphere
is a complex, dynamic system—it is constantly changing. The
important questions about our thin, life-sustaining blanket of gases
in the 21st century are:

 How is it changing?
 What factors and events are driving these changes?
 What do these changes mean for life on Earth?
What drives atmospheric changes, and why should we care?
That's a fair question. After all, humans have evolved, and indeed
thrived, in this unpredictable and highly dynamic environment. The
answer is this: We should care because human activity appears to
be altering Earth's atmosphere at a very high rate. Indeed, recent
findings indicate that important components of the atmosphere are
changing more rapidly now than at any other time in human history.
Because the composition of the atmosphere is so important in
regulating conditions on Earth, and we are so totally dependent on
those conditions, we need to develop an accurate understanding of
how the atmosphere is changing, and why.

Carbon Monoxide, CO

Carbon monoxide is an invisible, odorless, highly toxic gas
that is produced through incomplete combustion. Its name is often
abbreviated to its chemical formula; CO. Global background
concentrations of carbon monoxide range from about 0.05 to 12
parts per million (ppm). The major natural sources of this gas are
brush fires, forest fires, and volcanoes. Burning of fossil fuels such
as oil, gasoline, natural gas, and coal are the
major anthropogenic sources. According to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency, 60% of the total global emissions of CO are from
human activities. Internal combustion engines in automobiles are
the largest single producers of this poisonous gas.

Although carbon monoxide has always been a component of
Earth's atmosphere, its concentrations have increased since the
industrial revolution when humans began using technologies that
dramatically heightened the amount of burning that occurs. CO is an
important part of the atmosphere because it reacts with other
atmospheric compounds to form pollutants that have a negative
impact on human health and can potentially influence the global
climate system. In sunny urban areas where large amounts of CO
are produced, it reacts with other pollutants to form ozone and
"smog," both of which are responsible for serious human health
problems. At larger scales, CO can impact the global climate system
by slowing the rate at which carbon dioxide is removed from the
atmosphere. In addition to this reduced removal rate, CO ultimately
forms additional carbon dioxide over time, when it reacts with
oxygen (O2) in the atmosphere.

Aerosols, Often Called "Particulates"
The skies over Northern India, filled with a thick layer of
aerosol particles along the southern edge of the Himalayan
Mountains. Courtesy of NASA's Visible Earth Collection.
Aerosols are very different from CO, but also play a role in human
health and environmental quality. Aerosols, unlike gases, are solid
particles that are very, very small—so small that they become
airborne. Once they are in the air, they can travel thousands of
miles before settling out in the oceans or on land. Unlike CO,
aerosols are not invisible, even though they may be difficult or
impossible to see at low concentrations. However, at high
concentrations, they are easily visible. In certain places and at
certain times, such as in the desert during a strong wind storm,
aerosols from the dry, dusty soils may become so concentrated as
to block out the sun. At lower concentrations, they absorb and
scatter less sunlight, but may still be visible.

There are many reasons scientists are interested in aerosols. These

 Monitoring environmental "disturbances" such as forest fires
and volcanic eruptions
 Monitoring air quality for public health
 Studying the Earth's radiation budget
 Studying climate change