Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Jia-li. Jia-li Wonders, “what is air made of” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Jia-li!

A deep breath after climbing a flight of stairs. A cool breeze on a scorching hot summer day. A warm draft from a fire on a chilly winter night. What do all of these things have in common? If you guessed “air,” then you’re correct!

But what exactly IS air? It’s all around you, right? After all, you breathe in and out hundreds upon hundreds of times each day. Yet, you can’t really see the air around you unless it interacts with something.

For example, have you ever opened a window and seen the curtains flutter? If so, you knew that air was coming through the window, pushing the curtains around. Despite this evidence, you couldn’t see the air itself.

Have you ever WONDERed about the air all around you? What is it made of? How can it be so important and yet remain so elusive and mysterious?

Many people assume that air is mostly made up of oxygen. After all, that’s what our bodies need so desperately from the air we breathe. While oxygen is an important part of air, many other things make up the air around us. 

The amount of oxygen in the air isn’t the same everywhere you go. Overall, it accounts for about 21% of air. The farther you move away from sea level, though, the less you’ll find. For example, there’s less oxygen in the air at the peaks of tall mountains. That’s why mountain climbers often have to use oxygen tanks to ascend to the world’s highest peaks, such as Mount Everest.

Around 78% of air is actually made up of another common gas called nitrogen. If you’re adding up those percentages in your head, you’ve probably already figured out that oxygen and nitrogen only make up about 99% of air. So what’s in that other 1%?

Besides oxygen and nitrogen, air also contains minute amounts of other gases. This includes argon, carbon dioxide, helium, methane, and other trace gases. But that’s not all! You’ll also find other things in air, like dust, pollen, microbes, spores, and even water!

Water vapor in air is a natural part of the water cycle. Humans feel the water vapor in the air as moisture, especially when it’s humid outside. Remember those hot summer days when it felt like the air was wet but it wasn’t raining? That’s humidity.

Humid days feel so unpleasant because the amount of moisture in the air interferes with your body’s natural cooling process. On a hot day, your body will sweat to cool itself down. Sweat leaves your body and evaporates on your skin, which cools your body’s temperature. On humid days, sweat doesn’t evaporate into the air like usual, because there’s already too much water vapor in the air.

So, even though you can’t see all these gases and microscopic particles in the air around you, they’re there and make up a substance that your body needs. Now you can breathe easier knowing a bit more about the air you use every day!

Standards: NGSS.PS1.A, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.SL.2

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day will really give you something to chew on!