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8: Atmosphere and Air Pollution

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    All biomes are universally affected by global conditions, such as climate, that ultimately shape each biome’s environment. Scientists who study climate have noted a series of marked changes that have gradually become increasingly evident during the last sixty years. Global climate change is the term used to describe altered global weather patterns, including a worldwide increase in temperature, due largely to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

    Learning Objectives

    • Define global climate change
    • Summarize the effects of the Industrial Revolution on global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration
    • Describe three natural factors affecting long-term global climate
    • List two or more greenhouse gases and describe their role in the greenhouse effect

    Global Climate Change

    Climate change can be understood by approaching three areas of study:

    • current and past global climate change
    • causes of past and present-day global climate change
    • ancient and current results of climate change


    The Earth has gone through periodic cycles of increases and decreases in temperature. During the past 2000 years, the Medieval Climate Anomaly was a warmer period, while the Little Ice Age was unusually cool. Both of these irregularities can be explained by natural causes of changes in climate, and, although the temperature changes were small, they had significant effects. Natural drivers of climate change include Milankovitch cycles, changes in solar activity, and volcanic eruptions. None of these factors, however, leads to rapid increases in global temperature or sustained increases in carbon dioxide. The burning of fossil fuels is an important source of greenhouse gases, which plays a major role in the greenhouse effect. Long ago, global warming resulted in the Permian extinction: a large-scale extinction event that is documented in the fossil record. Currently, modern-day climate change is associated with the increased melting of glaciers and polar ice sheets, resulting in a gradual increase in sea level. Plants and animals can also be affected by global climate change when the timing of seasonal events, such as flowering or pollination, is affected by global warming.

    • 8.1: The Atmosphere, Climate, and Weather
    • 8.2: Earth's Energy Balance
      Earth’s temperature depends on the balance between energy entering and leaving the planet. When incoming energy from the sun is absorbed, Earth warms. When energy is released from Earth into space, the planet cools. Many factors, both natural and human, can cause changes in Earth’s energy balance, including changes in greenhouse gasses; variations in the sun’s energy reaching Earth; and changes in the reflectivity of Earth’s atmosphere and surface.
    • 8.3: Atmospheric and Ocean Circulation
    • 8.4: Air Pollution
      Air pollution occurs in many forms but can generally be thought of as gaseous and particulate contaminants that are present in the earth’s atmosphere. Chemicals discharged into the air that have a direct impact on the environment are called primary pollutants. These primary pollutants sometimes react with other chemicals in the air to produce secondary pollutants.
    • 8.5: Acid Deposition
      Acid deposition is a term referring to a mixture of wet and dry deposition (deposited material) from the atmosphere containing higher than normal amounts of nitric and sulfuric acids. The precursors, or chemical forerunners, of acid deposition formation result from both natural sources, such as volcanoes and decaying vegetation, and man-made sources, primarily emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and nitrogen oxides (NOₓ) resulting from fossil fuel combustion.
    • 8.6: Stratospheric Ozone Depletion
      The ozone depletion process begins when CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and other ozone-depleting substances (ODS) are emitted into the atmosphere. CFC molecules are extremely stable, and they do not dissolve in rain. After a period of several years, ODS molecules reach the stratosphere, about 10 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. CFCs were used by industry as refrigerants, degreasing solvents, and propellants.

    Contributors and Attributions

    • Connie Rye (East Mississippi Community College), Robert Wise (University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh), Vladimir Jurukovski (Suffolk County Community College), Jean DeSaix (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Jung Choi (Georgia Institute of Technology), Yael Avissar (Rhode Island College) among other contributing authors. Original content by OpenStax (CC BY 4.0; Download for free at

    • Kyle Whittinghill (University of Pittsburgh)

    8: Atmosphere and Air Pollution is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Matthew R. Fisher via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.