Carnegie Mellon University

photoPeter J. Adams

Civil and Environmental Engineering
Engineering and Public Policy

Earth’s atmosphere is a fascinating but fragile object. Studying it is exciting for purely intellectual reasons. No single class, scientific discipline, or academic major contains all the knowledge needed to understand it. Students of the atmosphere – and researchers are students in the broadest sense of the word – are required to master chemistry and physics, together with meteorology and heat transfer to make progress. More than a mere object of study, the atmosphere is the air we breathe. It provides the weather we enjoy, regret, and ultimately depend on. Despite appearances, it is small. When at cruising altitude in a commercial jet, 80% of the atmosphere is below you. Just ten meters (33 feet) depth of ocean contains as much mass as all the air above it. These are sobering facts, but it is shocking to realize that climate and air quality depend mostly on the presence of only trace chemicals. The entire ozone layer, if concentrated and brought to surface pressure, would be a mere 0.3 centimeters (about an eighth of an inch) thick. Atmospheric science is not an “ivory tower” discipline but an endeavor to preserve this fragile cocoon in which we live. Ensuring air quality and safe-guarding the climate are among the greatest challenges society faces. Solving these problems will require determined policy responses by governments acting in the interests of their citizens. With effort, society can educate researchers who are fascinated by and respectful of the atmosphere and who will help formulate these policies.