From the ground up to space, the sky is all around us, but we hardly notice how occupied it is. Please spare a second thought for it on “Look up at the sky day” on April 14th. There’s hope, but we must act now.
How do we define the sky?
The temperature, pressure and contents vary in the different layers of the Atmosphere of Earth, and these variations cause the changing weather we experience. At sea level, it usually contains approximately 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 0.9% argon, 0.05% carbon dioxide, other small quantities of gases, and water vapour. This water makes up around 1% of the volume, averaging 0.4% over the entire atmosphere and condenses at higher altitudes to form clouds, which cover two thirds of the sky at any moment. As it reaches its maximum saturation point, it may then fall as precipitation (rain, snow, hail, etc). In large quantities this could cause flooding, but can also absorb some of those harmful gases (such as carbon oxides, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, methane, ammonia, etc), creating acid rain which can then have detrimental effects on our ecosystem (damaging buildings, property, crops, wildlife and our health). Air suitable for use by terrestrial flora (plants) and fauna (animals) can only be found in Earth’s troposphere (from the ground up 18kms (11 miles)), where plants use CO2 to grow, producing oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis, which animals then use creating CO2. It is important to try to maintain a healthy balance between all of these elements.
What is in the sky (and what should not)?
The troposphere is the second home to many species of birds, insects and bats (the only flying mammal). The fastest bird is the Peregrine falcon, which can reach speeds of over 320 kph (200 mph) when diving for its prey. The Albatross has the largest wingspan at 3.7 metres (12 ft) and hardly ever lands. The penguin can’t fly, but it does pretty well in the water. The Ostrich is the heaviest bird at 156.8 kilos (345 pounds), and it’s too heavy to fly, but it can run at 70 km/h (43 mph), and for me, that’s flying! Five billion chickens are eaten every year, without needing to mention all of the turkeys, ducks, etc. A staggering 96% of all animal life on land has now been domesticated, mostly for our food needs and that wild 4% faces increasing pressure of extinction because of human activity. Not only do livestock produce a lot of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane, but their residues are often as toxic to other forms of life when it enters rivers and groundwater. In just the last 40 years, bird populations have decreased by up to 64%, while up to 70% of all flying insects have disappeared, mostly due to misuse of pesticides. Just ask older generations how driving used to be 10, 30 or 50 years ago comparing the number of dead bugs on the windscreen to nowadays. Butterflies and bees have become endangered, and if they go extinct, so will we, because they pollinate nearly all of our crops, fruits and vegetables. The Arctic Tern makes the longest annual migration of all animals, around 96,000 kilometres (59,650 miles). Many migratory birds now choose to fly at dusk and at night trying to avoid the heat of the day, but are forced to contend with skyscrapers and transmitter towers on their routes, causing billions of deaths every year. For thousands of years, birds have followed magnetic ley lines to their destinations and this has been demonstrated to be affected by electromagnetic radiation, such as radio waves and mobile phone technology.
Light pollution is very often overlooked, but it causes alterations in sleep patterns of birds and animals, and sleep is also a vital part of our functioning. Noise pollution research suggests even 30dB may be where people begin to be affected, and prolonged exposure affects our hearts and minds. Some average urban noise levels of 97.6 dB have been obtained, exceeding the WHO threshold of 53 dB. Sudden loud noises, like firework explosions and opening champagne corks, are known to cause strokes and heart attacks. Adding to the controversy, wildlife conservationists say all of these things make urban areas unattractive to birds and animals, because it significantly affects their fragile health, but obviously this is probably affecting humans as well. According to a report from the International Energy Agency in 2018, as many as 7 million people died prematurely solely due to air pollution, and most of these deaths were in impoverished countries with poor air quality, like Mongolia, India and China. However, a new report from April 2021, suggests 10.2 million died in 2012 based on revised figures for PM2.5, nearly doubling previous figures. With at least 1 in 5 deaths coming from air pollution, we really need to act now. In the Western world, we experience urban heat islands where the external temperature in cities is higher than it should be comparatively, meaning you have to spend money to cool the air down, which means more heat, and then even more money to cool the air… Further investigation is required into the long-term effects of these processes and gases produced by human activity, but research certainly suggests a profound life-long effect on flora and fauna, including many problems attributable to climate change. Burning fossil fuels, like oil, gas and coal for energy, are principal causes, but do not forget that we also burn our refuse (rubbish, tires, plastics, organic garden waste, etc) and these add to greenhouse gases and air pollution too. It’s not all bad news, as the Earth’s protective Ozone layer is finally seeing improvements after the banning of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) back in the 1980s. Ozone in the upper atmosphere is essential to block most of the ultraviolet light that reaches the Earth, and without it we would all be baked to a crisp in a matter of minutes. However, a relatively new phenomenon, ozone that forms at ground level, can be harmful to life and especially respiratory systems. We still need exposure to sunlight to create Vitamin D, but like with most things, everything in moderation, eh. Particulate Matter being added to the atmosphere causes global dimming, a cooling effect, by blocking up to 20% of sunshine from reaching the surface of the planet. This can form naturally with black carbon and ash from bush fires and volcanoes, as we saw with the 2019/2020 Australian bush fires and the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 that was so violent it caused the “Year without a summer” in 1816. Clouds also do this naturally and cover two thirds of the planet at any one time. However, not all dimming is good for our health because PM 2.5 and smaller has already been associated with lung disease, heart attacks and stroke, while magnetic nanoparticles created by diesel combustion can easily cross into the brain and cause neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, and brain development issues in children. Pollution from air travel in the upper atmosphere is also of great concern, because it may have a greater effect. Some conspiracy theories even claim that governments are spraying powdered aluminium, sulphates and other substances into the stratosphere to block solar radiation, but this would probably be very costly, both economically, and ecologically, as growing food would become more difficult. Another common phenomenon is the dust from deserts and arid areas moving great distances through the air all over the globe, including dirt from the Sahara which has even been found as far away as France (2,500 kilometres away). On those same hot northerly Saharan winds, scientists have recently discovered toxic microplastics from Southern Spain’s giant plastic greenhouses, and other studies suggest that huge quantities of microplastics are floating around in our atmosphere too, obviously entering every living organism as they breathe. We seem to be eating and drinking them too, which may total as much as a credit card sized amount every week!
How does humanity benefit from the sky?
Air to breathe: It provides the air we need to breathe, and on hot days, a refreshing breeze. If it weren’t for the air pollution, we’d be doing much better and life expectancy would be 2 or 3 years more per person.
Travel: In 2019, flight numbers peaked at 40.3 million, and with Covid restrictions being lifted worldwide, it is expected around 25 million flights will take place in 2022. No such thing as a free ride though.
How to Save Our Skies?
Individually: Remember that whatever pollutant or contaminant ends up in the air, then ends up in our lungs, so please stop smoking, and basically, burning things in general. That goes especially for fossil fuels, like driving gas guzzling vehicles, and using wood, gas or oil for heating homes, cooking, etc.
Collectively, including Governments: We must work harder at stopping harmful substances from being added to the atmosphere, like Greenhouse gases, and then we need to find a way to remove the excess CO2 that we have already added.
Unpopular opinion: All of us share some responsibility for the state of our skies, contributing something to it from our bad habits, excessive energy use, etc. We should remember that we are not the only species dependant on breathing clean air. Think of your beloved pets, animals in zoos, urban wildlife, etc. Protecting the skies from further environmental disasters and cleaning up our mess must be top priorities.
Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to check the veracity of the information contained within, certain limitations could result in not all data being current or completely accurate. Please feel free to contact us if you feel particular data needs updating.
Save Our Skies Test
Here are 10 questions...
How it started
How it's going
SOSquiz Glossary of Terms (with links to Wikipedia)
AEEA (Asociación Española de Educación Ambiental)
ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network)
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Coronavirus (Covid-19 or SARS Cov-2)
Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
National Security Agency (NSA)
Particulate Matter (PM 10, 2.5 & UFP)
Quality of life (QOL)
Ultrafine particles (UFP)
World Wide Web (www)