The air we breathe is not something we think a lot about until something goes wrong. Gas, dust, particulates, and the balance of gases all affect both our breathing – or lack thereof! – and also play a big factor in visibility and personal safety. The quality and composition of the air affects us on a personal – lung size – scale, but also on a world wide scale as we feel the effects of climate change and atmospheric pollution.

With the fires in Australia, and as of writing a volcanic eruption in the Philippines and industrial pollution, it is getting harder to ignore the air around us. You can see the effects in my photo – of the sun through smoke in the morning. Even rays of sunshine through the window feel wrong, shedding a ghastly orange apocalyptic hue rather than cheer. How do authors incorporate the air into a novel?


We have evolved along with the planet to be most comfortable with the air composition to be 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. That’s not to say we can’t adapt– people that live in Nepal and the Andes have a larger lung capacity and a slightly different blood system to cope with the altitude. The book “Surviving the Extremes” by Kenneth Kamler is a fascinating read for those interested in human survival in extreme conditions.

But scifi characters can explore the differences every time they open the air lock. From vacuum, to fetid oxygen rich jungles, and then play with the effects of trace elements and oxygen saturation on the away team. How long can they survive – and what tech do they use to detect it and protect themselves? Tricorders? Nanotech? Androids? Inoculations? Space suits?

In an underground situation the air can go bad very quickly. Ventilation is the key – a good, continued flushing of fresh air. Wiki article here. But people have know this for a long time – the practice of lighting a small brand and sending it down a well was a safety precaution in Little House on the Prairie – with almost fatal consequences when ignored. This has evolved into the use of Drager tubes – glass tubes that colour change in different atmospheres, as well as complex ventilation computer programs for large mines.

Particular gases underground can have various dangerous properties, toxic , asphyxiative or explosive. Most are colourless, and many have no smell either. Methane in coal mines is explosive – and also found in swamps where it can sometimes spontaneously igniting to give the ghostly dead man candles of legend. Carbon monoxide is lethal at low concentrations. Sulphur dioxide with its rotten egg smell. But its not only the immediate toxic effects, some can affect your lungs and health later on. Chlorine gas in WW1 was notorious for destroying lung capacity, even if you survived initially.

Dust and particulates

Dust and sand storms are shorter term events that present as an emergency. Protection of the skin, face etc is vital and often appears on movies set in the desert such as ‘The Scorpion King’. I have a dust storm in my upcoming novel ‘Rocky Road to Love’ where the heroine has to rescue the hero, using her past experience and practical skills in the desert.

But particulates – fine dust, ash, tobacco smoke, biological ones such as viruses and allergens such as pollen – these have some interesting effects on people and the environment. For more in depth info on particulates please check out the Wikipedia article.

Visually, pollution can colour the air – grey- brown- orange- unnatural hues that give an unsettling feeling. Urban fantasy and near future apocalyptic books often mention the air, with tech developed to filter it, or the high price of bottled clean air. The appearance of a plume of smoke in the distance can be an omen of worse to come – volcano- forest fire – death is coming. Auel used this several times very effectively, with Ayla using a forest fire to hunt, and becoming upset by the carnage, and also a volcanic eruption of ash which fell, providing a scene of monochrome. Grey ash settling and obliterating people’s differences was a powerful image at the funeral of Rydag, a boy of mixed species.

With a close fire front, burnt leaves flutter down, and later embers start new fire fronts. The dust and gases from a volcano can kill long before there is any lava. Pompeii and Mt St Helens are examples of this. The distance for observation seems fine – until it isn’t.

Lots of interesting things fall from the sky. There is a world of myth in rains of frogs, blood, fish and manna. Most of the rains of creatures can be explained (storm fronts, bacteria, acts of divine revulsion etc). Strange things falling from the sky take on the aspect of myth and become omens, portents of future disaster. Fear of the unknown or the invisible is fairly well hard wired into the human condition. Humans love seeing patterns where none exist. Or do they? An ancient story or myth can be the only way history is remembered.

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World Building: Air
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One thought on “World Building: Air

  • January 29, 2020 at 10:10

    Your comment about oxygen reminded me – one of the biggest upheavals was the change in oxygen levels across geological eras. It certainly affected the fauna and flora of the period – something to consider when you time travel to visit the dinosaurs 🙂

    Here’s a good article about it:

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