Air: Every breath we take...
Life exists on Planet Earth thanks to an atmosphere that keeps our planet not too cold, not too hot, but just right—and that contains a mix of gases that sustain rather than suffocate or poison living things. Over the eons, there have been periods of time when the atmosphere wasn’t “just right” for different reasons. Massive volcanoes have erupted on occasion, blocking the sun and/or toxifying the atmosphere. In rare but disastrous instances, a meteor striking the Earth has wreaked havoc for living things due to impacts on the atmosphere. And for various reasons, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has vacillated over millennia, bringing warming periods and Ice Ages. However, for most of human history, the atmosphere has been our friend.
Lately, though, we haven’t been so friendly toward it. It all started as humans mastered fire and began—on a small scale at first—to alter the composition of the atmosphere as well as burn down forests. Things went into high gear with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the wholesale combustion of fossil fuels—coal at first, then oil and gas. This led to local impacts such as heavy smog limiting visibility and fumes causing death; it was also the beginning of a ramping up of anthropogenic (human-caused) increases of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere. (As a CO2 molecule can remain in the atmosphere for centuries, today’s changing climate is partly caused by pollution from our ancestors’ factories and furnaces—and our grandchildren will have to deal with our excess C02.) Compared to the dawn of the Industrial Age, the concentration of C02 in the world’s atmosphere has gone from 270 ppm to over 400ppm—and is climbing fast. The higher temperatures brought on by these additional heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere will also create more ground-level ozone pollution, which leads to lung inflammation, asthma and even death. See our climate change page for more information on the impacts of a changing global climate.
Another big problem is particulate matter—or what we commonly think of as “air pollution.” These particles are released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels are combusted—and they can be deadly. In fact, a World Health Organization report estimated that air pollution kills some 7 million people every year—or 1 out of 1000 human beings. In China alone, 1.2 million people will die from breathing unclean air—at a healthcare care cost of over $250 billion. In the USA, some 200,000 US people die from air pollution annually, with the leading causes being vehicle emissions (53,000) and power plants (52,000). Some often-overlooked causes of air pollution: large container ships belching pollutants in harbor cities; funeral pyres in Hindu nations in South Asia; pollution wafting over the Pacific from China to the USA.
In addition to the human toll of air pollution, emissions created by burning fossil fuels also lead to acid rain , which in turns decimates forests and renders lakes and streams too acidic to harbor life. And in a twist that would be comic if it were not so cruel, some streams along the East Coast are now becoming too alkaline—thanks to acid rain. How can that be? When highly acidic rain falls on and erodes limestone along stream banks, this runoff in turn lowers the ph balance of these waterways beyond what is healthy.
The world’s forests play a large role in cleansing and regulating the planet’s atmosphere. They not only create oxygen, but also absorb and store carbon. The Amazon rainforest itself sequesters some 2 billion tons of CO2 annually—or about 6 percent of the 35 billion tons humans collectively put into the atmosphere every year. It also stores in its biomass some 86 billion tons of CO2; the world's forests altogether store over 600 billion tons in the trees and soil.
Forests are falling fast, however. Every day the planet loses 80,000 acres, with another 80,000 acres degraded. The culprits: farming, ranching, resource extraction, urban sprawl, and other forms of human encroachment. The Amazon has suffered two “100 Year” droughts in the past decade, thought to be a result of rainfall patterns being affected by a warming North Atlantic—due to climate change. In those years, dying trees and forest fires contributed billions of tons of CO2 to the global atmosphere. On average, deforestation releases about 5 billion tons of CO2 every year—or nearly as much as the USA creates by fossil fuel combustion.
Breathing Easier—what to do
Sources: global deforestation rates; air pollution deaths annually USA; 7 million air pollution deaths globally; US pollution originating in China; Chinese deaths from air pollution; deforestation’s contribution to climate change; deaths from indoor cook smoke; acid rain; air quality impact of funeral pyres; acid rain causing rise in stream alkalinity