Factories like this are a major source of air pollution.
Click on image for full size
Copyright UCAR

Air Pollution and Climate Change

Air pollution affects Earth’s climate. However, not all types of pollutants have the same effect. There are many different types of air pollution. Some types cause our planet to warm at a faster rate. Others cause the rate of global warming to slow down by causing temporary cooling. Read on the learn more about pollutants that cause warming and those that cause cooling.

Some air pollutants cause more global warming

Air pollution includes gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These are greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases don’t make up a large percentage of Earth’s atmosphere, but even in small quantities they have a profound effect on global climate. Greenhouses gases are mostly responsible for the increase in global surface air temperature of about 0.6º Celsius (1º Fahrenheit) over the past century and scientists project that much more warming will likely happen during the next century.
Greenhouse gases cause global warming by trapping solar radiation in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are a natural part of Earth’s atmosphere, but in the last 150 years or so, the amount of greenhouses gases in our atmosphere has increased significantly because of an increase in the amount of car exhaust and pollutants released from smokestacks at factories and power plants.

Some air pollutants slow down global warming

Cars, trucks, and smokestacks also release tiny particles into the atmosphere. Tiny particles, called aerosols, range in size from 10 nanometers to more than 100 micrometers in diameter. They can be composed of various substances such as mineral dust, sulfates, sea salt, or carbon. They can occur naturally in the atmosphere, for instance released by erupting volcanoes or from wildfire smoke, but air pollution released by burning of fossil fuels also contributes the tiny particles to the atmosphere. Aerosols have an impact on climate. While different types of aerosols act differently in the atmosphere, the overall effect of aerosols is cooling.

Greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for years and cause warming. Computer models indicate that, worldwide, sulfates and other particles cause about half as much cooling as greenhouse gases cause warming.

Last modified June 17, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Air Pollution

What do smog, acid rain, carbon monoxide, fossil fuel exhausts, and tropospheric ozone have in common? They are all examples of air pollution. Air pollution is not new. As far back as the 13 th century,...more

What is Climate?

Climate in your place on the globe is called regional climate. It is the average weather pattern in a place over more than thirty years, including the variations in seasons. To describe the regional climate...more

Carbon Dioxide - CO2

Carbon dioxide is a colorless and non-flammable gas at normal temperature and pressure. Although much less abundant than nitrogen and oxygen in Earth's atmosphere, carbon dioxide is an important constituent...more

Methane - CH4

Methane is gas that is found in small quantities in Earth's atmosphere. Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon, consisting of one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas....more

Earth's Greenhouse Gases

Less than 1% of the gases in Earth's atmosphere are called greenhouse gases. Even though they are not very abundant, these greenhouse gases have a major effect. Carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O),...more

Global Warming: Scientists Say Earth Is Heating Up

Earth’s climate is warming. During the 20th Century Earth’s average temperature rose 0.6° Celsius (1.1°F). Scientists are finding that the change in temperature has been causing other aspects of our planet...more

Aerosols: Tiny Particulates in the Air

Aerosols, also called particulates, are tiny bits of solid or liquid suspended in the air. Some aerosols are so small that they are made only of a few molecules – so small that they are invisible because...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA