Visibility

Five types of fine particles contribute to haze: sulfates, nitrates, organic carbon, elemental carbon, and crustal material. The importance of each type of particle varies across the U.S. and from season to season. The typical importance of each particle type in the eastern and western U.S. is shown in the figure to the right. Details on each particle type are provided below.

  • Sulfate particles form in the air from sulfur dioxide gas. Most of this gas is released from coal-burning power plants and other industrial sources, such as smelters, industrial boilers, and oil refineries. Sulfates are the largest contributor to haze in the eastern U.S., due to the region's large number of coal-fired power plants. In humid environments, sulfate particles grow rapidly to a size that are very efficient at scattering light, thereby exacerbating the problem in the East.
  • Organic carbon particles are emitted directly into the air and also form there as a reaction of various gaseous hydrocarbons. Sources of direct and indirect organic carbon particles include vehicle exhaust, vehicle refueling, solvent evaporation (e.g., paints), food cooking, and various commercial and industrial sources. Gaseous hydrocarbons are also emitted naturally from trees and from fires, but these sources have only a small effect on overall visibility.
  • Nitrate particles form in the air from nitrogen oxide gas. This gas is released from virtually all combustion activities, especially those involving cars, trucks, off-road engines (e.g., construction equipment, lawn mowers, and boats), power plants, and other industrial sources. Like sulfates, nitrates scatter more light in humid environments.
  • Elemental carbon particles are very similar to soot. They are smaller than most other particles and tend to absorb rather than scatter light. The "brown clouds" often seen in winter over urban areas and in mountain valleys can be largely attributed to elemental carbon. These particles are emitted directly into the air from virtually all combustion activities, but are especially prevalent in diesel exhaust and smoke from the burning of wood and wastes.
  • Crustal material is very similar to dust. It enters the air from dirt roads, fields, and other open spaces as a result of wind, traffic, and other surface activities. Whereas other types of particles form from the condensation and growth of microscopic particles and gasses, crustal material results from the crushing and grinding of larger, earth-born material. Because it is difficult to reduce this material to microscopic sizes, crustal material tends to be larger than other particles and tends to fall from the air sooner, contributing less to the overall effect of haze

< Back