Environment (other)

What Makes up the Air We Breathe?

German Portillo
By German Portillo. July 8, 2024
What Makes up the Air We Breathe?

Air might seem like a simple, invisible blanket around our planet, but it's actually a fascinating mix of gases that play a crucial role in keeping us alive and shaping the Earth. Mostly made up of nitrogen and oxygen, air is not just essential for breathing; it also helps regulate temperature, protects us from harmful rays of the sun, and supports many natural processes.

In this article from The Daily ECO, we will explore what makes up the air we breathe, its properties, and how it functions. We’ll also discuss the dangers of air pollution and share ways we can protect this vital resource.

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  1. What is the air?
  2. What is the air made of?
  3. What are the functions of air?
  4. What are the physical and chemical properties of air?
  5. What is air pollution?

What is the air?

Air is the mixture of gases that makes up Earth's atmosphere, essential for life on our planet. Its composition plays a critical role in regulating our planet's climate and supporting various biological processes.

The natural balance of gases in the atmosphere is crucial. Human activities like burning fossil fuels can disrupt this balance, leading to environmental problems like climate change and air pollution.

Is the air we breathe 100% oxygen?

No, the air we breathe is not 100% oxygen. In fact, oxygen makes up only about 21% of the air we breathe.

What is the air made of?

The composition of air in the troposphere, the lowest layer of the atmosphere where life thrives and weather occurs, is relatively stable and consists of several key components:

Nitrogen (N2)

Makes up approximately 78% of the atmosphere. This gas acts like a calming influence because it dilutes the oxygen, preventing things from spontaneously combusting, and plays a role in plant growth. Nitrogen is essential for life, as plants require it in the form of compounds like ammonia or nitrates for growth. Certain bacteria and plants play a crucial role in fixing atmospheric nitrogen into these usable forms.

Oxygen (O2)

Constitutes about 21% of the atmosphere. It fuels cellular respiration, the process by which our bodies convert food into energy. Without this vital gas, life as we know it wouldn't exist.

Argon (Ar)

Makes up about 0.93% of the atmosphere. Argon is a noble gas, chemically inert, and does not participate in significant atmospheric or biological processes. However, it's still a significant contributor, adding to the overall air pressure and providing a layer of stability.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Represents approximately 0.04% of the atmosphere. Despite its small proportion, CO2 is critical for photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce oxygen and energy. However, human activities like burning fossil fuels can disrupt the natural balance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to environmental concerns.

Water vapor (H2O)

Variable in concentration, typically between 0.1% to 4%. The amount of water vapor in the air varies with temperature and humidity. It can exist as invisible vapor or condense to form clouds, rain, and snow. The amount of water vapor in the air varies depending on factors like temperature and location.

Trace gases

Specifically, neon, helium, methane, these gases exist in minute quantities, but they still contribute to the overall composition of air. Some, like methane, can trap heat and contribute to the greenhouse effect.

What Makes up the Air We Breathe? - What is the air made of?

What are the functions of air?

Air is indispensable for the survival of all living beings. The most crucial function of air is providing oxygen (O2) for living organisms. We breathe in oxygen, which fuels cellular respiration, the process by which our bodies convert food into energy. Plants, on the other hand, take in carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air for photosynthesis, the process by which they produce food and release oxygen back into the atmosphere. This creates a vital cycle that sustains life on Earth.

Moreover, air plays a crucial role as a natural regulator of the Earth's climate and temperature. Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and water vapor trap heat from the sun, maintaining temperatures that support life on the planet. Without this protective layer of gases, temperatures would fluctuate dramatically, making life nearly impossible.

The Earth's atmosphere also acts as a shield against harmful solar radiation. The ozone layer, located in the stratosphere, absorbs and blocks most of the sun's ultraviolet rays, protecting living organisms from their damaging effects such as sunburn and skin cancer.

Additionally, the movement of air, known as wind, is vital for redistributing heat and humidity across the globe. Winds help to balance temperatures and transport clouds, facilitating the distribution of precipitation. This movement creates the weather phenomena we experience daily, such as wind, rain, snow, and storms. This ensures that different regions receive the water they need, which is essential for sustaining life.

Finally, the abundant nitrogen in the air acts as a buffer, dampening sound waves and contributing to the overall sound we hear. It also plays a crucial role in the formation of some air pollutants.

What Makes up the Air We Breathe? - What are the functions of air?

What are the physical and chemical properties of air?

Air possesses various physical and chemical properties that are essential to its behavior and its multiple roles in the environment and daily life.

Physical properties

  • Pure air is invisible and lacks any distinct smell or taste, making it imperceptible to human senses under normal conditions.

  • At sea level and 15°C, air has a density of approximately 1.225 kg/m³. Density decreases with altitude due to lower atmospheric pressure and temperature. Air has a relatively low density compared to liquids and solids.

  • Air pressure, known as atmospheric pressure, is the force exerted by air on the Earth's surface. Standard atmospheric pressure at sea level is 1013.25 hPa (hectopascals) or 1 atm (atmosphere). Air exerts pressure on everything it touches due to the weight of the gas molecules above. This pressure is essential for various biological and physical processes.

  • Air temperature varies widely based on altitude, latitude, and local weather. Temperature influences air density and its capacity to hold water vapor.

Chemical properties

  • While most air components are stable, oxygen is an oxidizing agent that can react with other elements and compounds, crucial for combustion and respiration. This property is essential for various applications, from using fire for cooking and heating to powering vehicles with internal combustion engines.

  • Gases in air dissolve to varying degrees in water. Oxygen and carbon dioxide, for example, dissolve in water and are vital to aquatic life.

  • Air has low thermal conductivity, making it an effective thermal insulator. Trapped air in insulating materials helps retain heat.

  • Air has a refractive index of approximately 1.0003, which affects how light bends as it passes through air. This property is significant for optical phenomena like refraction and scattering of light.

Want to dive deeper? Our other article explores the vital role air plays in sustaining all life on Earth.

What Makes up the Air We Breathe? - What are the physical and chemical properties of air?

What is air pollution?

Air pollution refers to the contamination of the air we breathe with harmful substances. These substances can be in the form of solid particles, liquid droplets, or gases. When present in high concentrations, they can adversely affect human health, the environment, and even materials.

Air pollution comes from various sources, both natural and human-made.

Common human-caused sources include:

  • Motor vehicles emit pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC), and suspended particles (particulate matter), contributing significantly to urban air pollution.

  • Factories and power plants release pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can degrade air quality in industrial areas.

  • The use of fertilizers and pesticides, as well as methane (CH4) emissions from farm animals, contribute to air pollution, affecting rural and suburban areas.

  • Combustion of coal, oil, and natural gas in power plants, homes, and vehicles produces pollutants that contribute to regional and global air pollution issues.

Natural sources, on the other hand, include:

  • Volcanic eruptions release sulfur dioxide (SO2), ash, and other pollutants into the atmosphere, impacting air quality on a regional scale.

  • Wildfires release particulate matter, carbon monoxide (CO), and organic compounds into the air, especially during periods of intense wildfire activity.

  • Storms in arid regions can lift dust and sand particles into the air, increasing airborne particulate matter concentrations.

  • Natural sources like plants and soils can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other gases, contributing to local air quality issues.

The consequences of air pollution are far-reaching, impacting both human health and the environment. Exposure to pollutants can trigger respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis, increase the risk of heart disease and cancer, and harm the development of children. Ecosystems are also not spared, with air pollution damaging plants and animals, contributing to acid rain that disrupts delicate lake and forest environments, and disrupting weather patterns. Learn more about the different types of air pollution in our other article.

If you want to read similar articles to What Makes up the Air We Breathe?, we recommend you visit our Environment (other) category.

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