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You are here: Home / Signals — well-being and the environment / Signals 2013 / Close up / A portrait of global aerosols

A portrait of global aerosols

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‘African dust’ from the Sahara is one of the natural sources of particulate matter in the air. Extremely dry and hot conditions in the Sahara create turbulence, which can propel dust upwards to a height of 4–5 km. Particles can stay at these heights for weeks or months, and are often blown across Europe.
Simulation of atmospheric particles

Simulation of atmospheric particles  Image © William Putman, NASA/Goddard

Sea spray is also a source of particulate matter, and can contribute up to 80 % of particle levels in the air in certain coastal areas. It is comprised mostly of salt, whipped into the air by strong winds.

Volcanic eruptions, for example in Iceland or in the Mediterranean, might also produce temporary peaks of airborne particulate matter in Europe.

Forest and grassland fires in Europe burn an average of almost 600 000 hectares (roughly 2.5 times the size of Luxembourg) per year and are a significant source of air pollution. Unfortunately, nine out of ten fires are believed to be caused directly or indirectly by humans, for example by arson, discarded cigarettes, campfires, or farmers burning crop residues after the harvest.

A simulation of atmospheric particles and their movements by NASA

Dust (red) is lifted from the surface; sea salt (blue) swirls inside cyclones; smoke (green) rises from fires; and sulphate particles (white) stream from volcanoes and fossil fuel emissions.

This portrait of global aerosols was produced by a GEOS-5 simulation at a 10-kilometer resolution. Image credit: William Putman, NASA/Goddard; www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery

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