Apart from gases atmosphere contains many types of extremely small and light matter suspended in it generally included under the term aerosol. The word aerosol includes a wide range of material that remains suspended for a period of time in the atmosphere and usually refers to small solid and liquid matter. Solid aerosols are usually defined as particles or particulates and are distinct from dust which includes large pieces of solid material (>0 m in diameter) which settle out of atmosphere due to gravitation after short period of suspension. While effects of dust are limited locally, smaller aerosols can be transported to long distances and affect air quality and climate on regional and global scales. Aerosols originate from two main sources and are accordingly termed primary aerosols or secondary aerosols.
(i) Primary aerosols: These include matter that has been swept into the atmosphere from the surface of Earth such as dry desert plains, lake beds and beaches, volcanic eruptions, forest fires, ocean surfaces, disintegration of meteors in atmosphere, biological sources (e.g. bacteria, pollen and (fungi) etc. About 90 percent of these aerosols are found in troposphere while they are also found in upper layers of atmosphere also. Primary aerosols of size 2.0-20.0 um are defined as coarse aerosols while those 2.0 m in diameter are defined as fine aerosols.
(ii) Secondary aerosols: These aerosols are formed after various types of chemical conversion processes in atmosphere which involve gases, other aerosols and atmospheric contents particularly the water vapor. Very little is know about the details of the chemistry of trace gases to aerosols. These aerosols are almost always less than 2.0 m in size at the time of their initial formation when they are at nucleation mode (<0.1 m) but grow rapidly to accumulation mode (upto 2.0 m). General age of a layer of these aerosols can be determined by the relative amount of nucleation versus accumulation sizes. The smaller aerosols coagulate rapidly and aerosols larger than accumulation mode are efficiently removed from atmosphere by wet and dry processes and deposited onto the Earth’s surface.
a) Sulfate aerosols: A large fractions of aerosols are sulfate aerosols. In the nucleation stage, liquid droplet of sulfuric acid grows rapidly to accumulation size and eventually forms a stable non-reactive particle containing sulfate. Most often eventual result is ammonium sulfate in ages aerosols or ammonium bisulphate. Typical concentrations of sulfate aerosols are :
Remote background area – 1-2 g/cubic meter
Non-urban continental areas – <10 g/cubic meter
Urban areas under anthropogenic influence – >10 g/cubic meter
b) Nitrate aerosols: Nitrate is another important component of aerosols and mainly comes from oxidation of nitrogen gas. Most common compound in fine aerosol range is ammonium nitrate. It is not as stable as ammonium sulfate and its concentration is controlled by the relative abundance of ammonium, nitrate, sulfate and the level of atmospheric temperature. Nitrate also exists in coarse aerosols as a reactive interchange between crustal elements over the continents or sea salt (ammonium nitrate) over the ocean.
c) Other aerosols: Most other aerosols can be further classified into size components with their areas of impacts as given in the subsequnet Table-1.
Optical effects of aerosol particles
High concentration of particulate material in the atmosphere is responsible for the visible hazes. Suspended material can cause a range of rather unusual atmospheric phenomena such asblue moons, green suns and green flashes or arcs about the sun or moon.
The distances between aerosol particles are generally greater than 10-100 particle radii and with such distances, scattering of light by particles is incoherent. Therefore, optical effects due to atmospheric aerosol particles are explained by light scattering.
Table-1: Properties of miscellaneous aerosol particles present in atmosphere.
Class Size range (mm) Impact area
(i) Aerosol size
Aitken 0.005-0.1 Air electricity
Large 0.1-1.0 Suspended particulate
Giant 1.0-15.0 Suspended particulate
Dust >15.0 Gravitational fallout
(ii) Aerosol type
Small ions <0.001 Air electricity
Large ions 0.005-0.5 Atmospheric chemistry
Haze 0.08-2.0 Visibility, human respiratory problems
Mist & fog 1.0-20.0 Visibility, atmospheric chemistry
nuclei 0.05-5.0 Cloud processes
Main aerosol 0.5-5.0 Visibility,atmospheric mass chemistry, cloud processes, human respiratory problems
Reyleigh Law for unpolarized light applicable only to particles of radius <0.03 m implies that scattered intensity will be proportional to r6/4 where r = radius of particle and = wavelength of light. Blue colour of scattered light from sky is explained in terms of effective scattering at shorter wave-lengths as the scattered intensity is inverse function of wave-wavelength. Red colour of setting Sun is because light passes over a very long path through atmosphere and most of its blue region of spectrum is lost due to scattering. Spectacular sunsets after volcanic eruptions or bush-fires arise due to higher than normal concentrations of very fine particulate material in the atmosphere after such eruptions.