Atmosphere Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Lead Author: Dr Peter Manins, Environmental Consulting and Research Unit, CSIRO Atmospheric Research, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06746 9

Introduction (continued)

Environmental indicators

Environmental indicators help track changes in the environment by selecting key measures, physical, chemical, biological or socioeconomic, that represent the key elements of a complex ecosystem or environmental issue. Indicators can be used to evaluate the fundamental condition of the environment without having to capture the full complexity of the system. Indicators are based on the best available scientific understanding. Changes in indicators can be related to more complex environmental trends.

For many people, the state of the atmosphere is a key measure of the health of the environment. Climate affects Australia's animals and plants as well as the economic, social and medical wellbeing of our society. The composition of the atmosphere dictates air quality, which affects human health and aesthetic values, as well as ecological systems.

Air quality indicators used in this Report address human health rather than atmospheric effects on ecological systems.

As with most environmental issues, pressures on the state of the atmosphere are closely linked to human population and activity. As an island continent, relatively isolated in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia suffers little from air pollution from beyond our borders. Our low population and technological sophistication limit air pollution problems, although our large cities and intensive industrial zones can put significant pressure on the local or regional environment.

Australia will be affected by the consequences of global environmental pressures such as the climate change associated with global warming. Our per capita greenhouse gas emissions are high. Ozone depletion will continue to exacerbate health and other problems associated with Australia's already high rates of UV radiation.

Indicators of the state of the atmosphere can be separated into measures of climate, driven by large-scale forces, and measures of air quality, driven by regional or local factors. A major difference between the large-scale and local forces is the lifetime of atmospheric pollutants. Those with large-scale effects persist in the atmosphere for years and even centuries. Carbon dioxide, CFCs and halons are examples. Short-lived pollutants such as sulfur dioxide cause local effects.

References are made throughout this section to Indicators as set out by Manton and Jasper (1998). The Indicators are described in various sections of the document: Climate variability and change, Stratospheric ozone, Urban air quality and Regional air quality.