Survival tactics in an intemperate climate

Air Pollution and Plant Life - Atmospheric Pollution - Earth Under Siege
May 30, 2003

These three books represent different views of related subject material and, although each aims to achieve different things, all are rewarding. They are suitable for environmental scientists and atmospheric chemists, while geographers willing to entertain a little chemistry and mathematics would also benefit. The level of presentation differs. Richard Turco's book is primarily for undergraduate consumption. Mark Jacobson's is suitable for masters and undergraduates; Nigel Bell and Michael Treshow's is primarily for masters work.

Jacobson's book is for anyone with an interest in the evolution and causes of air pollution, as well as its regulation. It is presented in 12 chapters, the first three of which introduce some elements of chemistry, atmospheric physics and earth history. Next come five good chapters on the basics, with material on urban air pollution - concentrating primarily on particulates and atmospheric optics - followed by a little basic meteorology. This scene-setting section concludes with a summary of the regulatory history of air pollution globally.

The remainder of the book develops thematically, with an excellent (and much-needed) chapter on indoor air pollution, and chapters on acid deposition, global ozone and global warming. Each chapter opens with a preamble summarising its content, and has a thought-provoking set of questions at the end. Generally, figures and illustrations are well thought out, although the use of colour in the text is distracting. The contents page is generously endowed with bright red, and scattered throughout the text are blue highlighted terms that are nowhere later defined or included in a glossary.

Despite its strengths, the book presents something of a paradox: the presentation of the historical narrative alongside the science is well done, but I am not convinced by the basic structural premise that those without any science background could use this text. In the later chapters, some very advanced chemical concepts are routinely discussed, and I worry that the significance of this good discussion and its general level seem to require a greater understanding of chemistry than is implied by the early content. In a few areas, coverage is slightly uneven. The US is understandably covered much better than other regions but, given the importance of the European Union in this area and its impact on other countries, half a page seems a little light.

Bell and Treshow, however, have produced what I suspect will be a classic. The book comprises 24 chapters, the first six providing the basics of what air pollution is, a brief summary of the evolution of the concepts and regulatory approaches to it, and the ideas and methodologies of translating sources into primary and secondary pollutants.

The remaining three chapters of the introductory section deal with the basic biology of plant uptake and the role of oxidants at the cellular, then community level. The middle chapters loosely focus on particular pollutants, with occasional chapters on particular delivery modes. So, as well as the classics (sulphur and nitrogen oxides, flourides, particulates), there is also material on volatile organic compounds and synergistic effects, and case studies dealing, for example, with forest decline.

The closing chapters look forwards, with material on air pollution in developing countries, how regulatory frameworks might evolve and the relationship with climate change. The book ends with a summary of the field, highlighting certain likely developments.

This is a second (and considerably fuller) edition of a book first published in the mid-1980s, and is a comprehensive and heavyweight contribution. Each chapter opens with either an introduction or a summary that describes where it is going and ends with a comprehensive reference list. The book makes good, but sparing, use of figures. There are about 30 authors in all but it is a tribute to the editors that this reads as one book, rather than a collection of chapters.

The second edition is a long-overdue work, which is well focused on its title. This distinguishes it from many other books on air pollution that mention plants; indeed, I can think of only one other that takes this focused approach, Atmospheric Pollution by Alan Wellburn, which aims more at the undergraduate readership. Bell and Treshow's book tackles related subjects on a need-to-know basis, and makes that judgement quite finely. It is a thoroughly worthwhile and enjoyable book.

Turco's book is also a second edition with much new material towards the end, which is a major strength. In my more dictatorial moments, I might say that this book should be compulsory undergraduate reading. Each chapter starts with a paragraph describing the territory of the chapter and ends with thought-provoking (and often numerate) problems, and a short, well-chosen reading list.

The book is presented in 14 chapters, with three useful appendices. The first four form the introduction, with material on the basic physical and physico-chemical properties of the atmosphere, some meteorology and a chapter on earth history.

The first introductory mini-chapter is slightly unusual in the field, acting as a very "green" lens through which all that follows is viewed. The second part of the book consists of good solid material on pollutant sources and dispersion, the history and nature of urban atmospheric pollution, and the effect of atmospheric pollution on human health. The final two chapters of this section discuss acidic precipitation and indoor air pollution. Many of the major urban players are discussed here: particulates, tropospheric ozone, oxides of sulphur and nitrogen. There is not that much on regulation, but useful sections on risk assessment and health implications.

Having dealt with regional pollution issues, the book brings out its pièce de résistance: a discussion, in the final four chapters, of global-scale issues. After a description of biogeochemical cycling as a toolkit, an elegant chapter describes the climate machine, dealing with energy balance and black-body theory, mechanisms of heat exchange and external drivers in a way that is easily understood. Finally, after a chapter devoted to stratospheric ozone depletion, the book ends with a forwards look couched in terms of global environmental engineering.

Certainly, the standard air pollution issues are all here and discussed in quantitative terms. However, the context is always interdisciplinary and, ultimately, the reader is taken on a panoramic tour of the way the global atmosphere-ocean system operates, aided by the author's lifetime of experience of biogeochemistry and planetary science.

Too often our students get so involved with the detail they "see only the mud, and never the stars". This book lives up to its title and is, I hope, the type of interdisciplinary textbook that would inspire students.

Simon Watts is reader in biogeochemistry, Oxford Brookes University.


Air Pollution and Plant Life

Editor - J. Nigel B. Bell and Michael Treshow
ISBN - 0 471 49090 3 and 49091 1
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £70.00 and £24.95
Pages - 465

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