The Industrial Revolution sparked a huge advance in technology and development, but it also had its downside. As human society has grown and advanced, its effects on the environment and the atmosphere have become more and more pronounced. The impact of humans on Earth’s environment is one of the major issues in ecological politics today, and a problem that may threaten the planet for some time to come.
One area where humans have had a pronounced effect on the Earth’s atmosphere is in the production of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide and methane are two of the primary contributors to the greenhouse effect, which causes the atmosphere to trap heat more effectively. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have increased by 38 percent since 1750, while methane concentrations have gone up 148 percent during the same period. Many scientists attribute this increase to the widespread combustion of fossil fuels.
Another part of the atmosphere that humans have directly affected is the ozone layer. This protective layer of the atmosphere helps block ultraviolet radiation, but in 1985, scientists from the British Antarctic Survey discovered that something was destroying ozone molecules above Antarctica. Study of the problem traced the destruction to chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting chemicals, and in 1987, countries around the world signed the Montreal Protocol to discontinue the use of CFCs.
Humans can also affect the atmosphere on a local level, through air pollution. Some of the compounds released by fossil fuel combustion can react together to create ozone molecules at the ground level, which can prove a threat to those with breathing difficulties and damage the lungs with long-term exposure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regularly publishes air quality alerts for affected areas, and advises that people with breathing conditions or environmental sensitivities stay inside on days where ozone concentrations are highest.
Long Term Effects
One of the biggest issues regarding the effects of humanity on the atmosphere is the long-term nature of the changes. For instance, the Montreal Protocol banned ozone-destroying CFCs in 1987, but these molecules have an extremely long life in the atmosphere. The British Antarctic Survey estimates that the hole in the ozone layer may take as many as 50 years to disappear, provided no new threats to the ozone come into play. Likewise, the Earth’s ecosystem re-absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere very slowly, which means that even stabilizing output levels may not be enough to prevent major atmospheric changes. Studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that even if we cut carbon output levels by 50 percent, we would still see a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the next century due to the changes already in motion.