Aerosols are solid or liquid particles dispersed in the air, and include dust, soot, sea salt crystals, spores, bacteria, viruses and a plethora of other microscopic particles. Collectively, they are often regarded as air pollution, but many of the aerosols have a natural origin. They are conventionally defined as those particles suspended in air having diameters in the region of 0.001 to 10 microns (millionth of a metre). They are formed by the dispersal of material at the surface (primary aerosols), or by reaction of gases in the atmosphere (secondary aerosols). Primary aerosols include volcanic dust, organic materials from biomass burning, soot from combustion and mineral dust from wind-blown processes. Secondary aerosols include sulphates from the oxidation of sulphur-containing gases during the burning of fossil fuels, nitrates from gaseous nitrogen species, and products from the oxidation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Although making up only 1 part in a billion of the mass of the atmosphere, they have the potential to significantly influence the amount of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s surface, and therefore the Earth's climate.
Although the abundance of aerosols varies over short time scales, for example after a volcanic eruption, over the long term the atmosphere is naturally cleansed through mixing processes and rainfall. Cleansing is never complete however, and there exists a natural background level of aerosols in the atmosphere. The average time spent in the atmosphere by aerosols is dependent upon their physical and chemical characteristics, and the time and location of their release. Natural sources of aerosols are probably 4 to 5 times larger than man-made ones on a global scale, but regional variations of man-made aerosol emissions may change this ratio significantly in certain areas, particularly in the industrialised Northern Hemisphere. At certain times of the year, the natural background level of aerosols may increase, for example, during the growing season, when large quantities of pollen are released into the atmosphere.