An Earth Day Glossary, From Air Pollution to Vog

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For Earth Day, we invited faculty members from The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) to define some frequently used environmental terms. Here is a glossary, from air pollution to vog, compiled with their help and this EPA guide

Air pollution: Air is made up of a number of gases, mostly nitrogen and oxygen and, in smaller amounts, water vapor, carbon dioxide, argon, and other trace gases. Air pollution occurs when harmful chemicals and particles are emitted to the air — due to human activity or natural forces — at a concentration that interferes with human health or welfare or that harms the environment in other ways. 

Alternative energy sources: Energy that does not come from fossil fuels (such as coal, oil, gas), for example, wind, flowing water, solar energy, and biomass.

Atmosphere: the mass of air surrounding the Earth.

Biodegradable waste: Organic waste, typically coming from plant or animal sources (for example, food scraps and paper), which other living organisms can break down.

Biodiversity: a short form of the phrase biological diversity, which means the variety of life on this planet and how it interacts within habitats and ecosystems. Biodiversity covers all plants, animals, and microorganisms on land and in water. See also ecosystem, habitat, and organism.

Biosphere: the portion of Earth and its atmosphere that can support life.

Biogeochemistry: interdisciplinary study of the biolgoical, geological, and chemical processes that make the Earth a habitable planet.

Greenhouse gas: gases the trap heat in the atmosphere

Carbon dioxide: a greenhouse gas that is a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion as well as respiration (breathing) of nearly all organisms on the planet. It is removed from the atmosphere by plants that use it to build up their tissues.

Climate refugees or climate migrants: are a subset of environmental migrants who were forced to flee “due to sudden or gradual alterations in the natural environment related to at least one of three impacts of climate change: sea-level rise, extreme weather events, or drought and water scarcity.”

Carbon footprint: A measure of the impact our activities have on the environment, especially climate change, often reported as the units of tons (or kilograms) of carbon dioxide each of us produces over a given period of time.

Carbon neutral: A situation that arises when the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air equals the amount of carbon dioxide removed from the air, for example by planting trees, or the amount saved by using renewable energy sources to produce the same amount of energy. See also renewable energy.

Climate: the pattern of weather in a particular region over a set period of time, usually 30 years. The pattern is affected by the amount of rain or snowfall, average temperatures throughout the year, humidity, wind speeds, and the like. Ireland has a temperate climate, in which it doesn’t get too hot or too cold.

Climate change: a change in the climate of a region over time due to natural forces or human activity. In the context of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, it is the change in climate caused by higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activities as well as natural climate changes. See also global warming and U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Compost: a rich soil-like material produced from decayed plants and other organic matter, such as food and animal waste, that decomposes (breaks down) naturally. Most food waste can be put into compost, but you should not include meat, bones, cheese, cooking oils, and fish. These may take a long time to break down and attract unwanted pests.

Conservation: preserving or protecting animals and resources such as minerals, water, and plants through planned action (such as breeding endangered species) or non-action (such as not letting taps run unnecessarily).

Deforestation: the reduction of trees in a wood or forest due to natural forces or human activity such as burning or logging.

Ecosystem: a community of organisms that depend on each other and the environment they inhabit.

Environmental justice: is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Extratropical Cyclone: the most common type of storm that impacts the United States and most other regions in the mid-latitudes. Names for specific types of extratropical cyclones are nor’easters, frontal storms, blizzards, and the notoriously named bomb cyclone. Bomb cyclones are extratropical cyclones that develop into strong storms (think intense winds and heavy precipitation) very quickly.

Fossil fuels: fuels, such as coal, gas, peat, and oil, that are formed in the ground over a long time from dead plants and animals and are used up once they are burned for energy.

Global warming: the increase in temperature of the Earth’s surface caused by human activities that cause high levels of carbon dioxide and other gases to be released into the air.

Groundwater: water that collects or flows underground in the small spaces in soil and rock. It might be a source of water for springs and wells and then used for drinking water.

Habitat: the area occupied by a community or species (group of animals or plants), such as a forest floor, desert, or sea shore.

Nitrous oxide: a greenhouse gas that is a byproduct of fertilizer use and fossil fuel combustion.

Methane: a greenhouse gas that is a byproduct of natural gas mining and transportation. It is also produced by ruminants (cows, sheep, etc.) and microorganisms living in anaerobic (wetland) soils.

Microplastics: fragments of any type of plastic less than five millimeters in length, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the European Chemicals Agency. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes.

Organic food: plants and animals that are grown or reared without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or hormones

Organism: any living thing, from bacteria and fungi to insects, plants, animals, and humans.

Ozone layer: the thin protective layer of gas 10 to 50 kilometers above the Earth that acts as a filter for ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. High UV levels can lead to skin cancer and cataracts and affect the growth of plants.

Paris Agreement: the Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), signed in 2016. The Paris Agreement's long-term temperature goal is to keep the rise in global average temperature to well below 2  C (3.6  F) above pre-industrial levels; and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5  C (2.7  F), recognizing that this would substantially reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. This should be done by reducing emissions as soon as possible.

Particulate matter: fine solid or liquid particles that pollute the air and are added to the atmosphere by natural and man-made processes at the Earth’s surface. Examples of particulate matter include dust, smoke, soot, pollen, and soil particles.

Permafrost thaw: permafrost is permanently frozen ground, but due to increasing temperatures the ice in the soil melts, enabling microbes to decompose the organic matter, resulting in more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

Post-consumer waste: waste collected after a consumer has disposed of it, for example, sweet wrappers or packaging from small electronic goods such as mobile phones or MP3 players.

Radiation: a form of energy that is transmitted in waves, rays, or particles from a natural source, such as the sun and the ground, or an artificial source, such as an x-ray machine.

Resilience: in the ecological sense, refers to the ability of a system to absorb external or internal shocks and still retain its fundamental form and function. 

Reforestation: the process of planting trees in forest lands to replace those that have been cut down.

Renewable energy: energy from renewable resources such as wind power, solar energy, or biomass.

Seven million: global annual number of deaths resulting from air pollution — one in eight of total global deaths.

Smog: air pollution consisting of smoke and fog, which occurs in large urban and industrial areas and is mainly caused by the action of sunlight on burned fuels, mostly from car exhausts. Smog can cause eye irritations and breathing problems and damage plant life.

Sustainability science: recognizes that human actions are much more likely to be successful if they consider economic, environmental, and equity aspects of that action.

Sustainable development: development using land or energy sources in a way that meets the needs of people today without reducing the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Urban heat island: an urban heat island occurs when a city experiences much warmer temperatures than nearby rural areas. The difference in temperature between urban and less-developed rural areas has to do with how well the surfaces in each environment absorb and hold heat.

Vog: volcanic smog

Submitted on: APR 22, 2021

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