Pollution in the stratosphere is clearly visible in this image in the thin red line.
Courtesy of NASA

Pollution from Asia Circles Globe at Stratospheric Heights

Air pollution can get high in the atmosphere high above most of the clouds you see in the sky.

Scientists are finding air pollution like black carbon, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides more than 20 miles above the surface of the Earth in the stratosphere layer of the atmosphere.

Once in the stratosphere, the pollution spreads out around the Earth. After several years of moving about in the stratosphere, some of the pollution drops lower in the atmosphere, and some types of pollution break apart.

Much of this pollution is coming from factories, power plants, and land cleared for development in south Asia. With information from satellites and computer models, scientists discovered that, in this area of the world, air moves upward during a time of summer stormy weather called the Asian monsoon.

"The monsoon is one of the most powerful atmospheric circulation systems on the planet and it happens to form right over a heavily polluted region," says scientist William Randel, who led the study. "As a result, the monsoon provides a pathway for transporting pollutants up to the stratosphere."

Satellite records show a pattern of more pollution in the stratosphere each summer for the past several years during monsoon season. There might be even more pollution in the stratosphere in the future because the amount of activities that form air pollution in China and other Asian countries is growing.

How does this pollution high in the sky affect the planet? More research is needed to answer that question. But we do know sulfur in the stratosphere can cause small particles called aerosols to form. Aerosols affect the ozone layer and climate.

Last modified May 21, 2010 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

Aerosols: Tiny Particulates in the Air

When you look up at the sky, you are looking at more than just air. There are also billions of tiny bits of solid and liquid floating in the atmosphere. Those tiny floating particles are called aerosols...more

Ozone in the Stratosphere

About 90% of the ozone in the Earth's atmosphere is found in the region called the stratosphere. This is the atmospheric layer between 16 and 48 kilometers (10 and 30 miles) above the Earth's surface....more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

Scientists have learned that Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, has erupted in the past due to the mixing of two different types of magma. "The data will help give us a better road map to what a future...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core, and makes up about 84 percent of the Earth's volume. The mantle is made up of many distinct portions or...more

Its Not Your Fault A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults, causing earthquakes. Scientists have been looking at one of these faults in a new way to figure out why. In theory,...more

Lower Solar Activity Linked to Changes in Sun's Conveyor Belt

The sun goes through cycles that last approximately 11 years. These solar cycle include phases with more magnetic activity, sunspots, and solar flares. They also include phases with less activity. The...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