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Why Does the Air Feel Cleaner On the Water?

If you’ve ever gone canoeing, kayaking or fishing on bodies of freshwater, you might have noticed something different about the air quality. The air around lakes, ponds, rivers and other freshwater sources often feels cleaner, more breathable and more pleasant overall.

This sensation isn’t just your imagination. The air surrounding freshwater tends to be cleaner for several significant reasons, and some of them might surprise you.

Forests – Earth’s Natural Air Purifiers

The most important reason air feels cleaner on the water has nothing to do with the water itself. Forests are Earth’s natural air purifiers, keeping the air supply within their ecosystems fresh and breathable. It’s not a coincidence that Canada ranks among the best in the world in air quality and also has the third-most forest area, only behind Russia and Brazil.

Trees play a crucial role in removing air pollutants such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter from the atmosphere. While they’re simply trying to survive through photosynthesis, they make the planet much healthier in the process. On a global scale, forests can absorb up to 30% of carbon emissions from human activity every year.

Forests also shield their environments from the impacts of local air pollutants, including ozone (O3) and NO2. These two gasses are absorbed through the same pores (stomata) that trees use to inhale CO2. O3 can unfortunately damage plant tissue through chemical oxidation, but Canada’s dense forests overpower any ozone pollution that comes their way.

Perhaps most impressively, forests do a great job removing particulate matter (PM) from the atmosphere. PM is a solid or liquid form of pollution that comes from many sources — vehicles, manufacturing plants, construction projects and man-made fires, to name a few. Trees intercept PM that filters into their environments, keeping the air clean and maintaining complete visibility.

Canada’s forests are particularly effective at air purification because humans haven’t altered them for decades, centuries or even thousands of years in some areas. The Canadian backcountry is full of unblemished wilderness that gets minimal human activity. When you go on an outdoor expedition here, you’re truly getting a taste of nature in its purest form.

Canada makes up 28% of the boreal forest zone that encircles the Northern Hemisphere. This area stretches from the Yukon and northern British Columbia all the way to Newfoundland and Labrador. Much of that area is uninhabited, but the country does a fantastic job with sustainable forest management to limit the effects of pollution.

That’s why the air feels so clean around bodies of freshwater. Canada’s vast boreal forests have created purified pockets of air over millions of years, making their ecosystems some of the most breathable places on Earth.

The Many Scents of Freshwater

Another primary reason why air feels cleaner on the water is because of the scent. Freshwater has many different smells, and some are more appealing than others. Stationary or slow-moving bodies of water tend to develop an unpleasant rotten egg smell due to a dissolved gas called hydrogen sulfide. Algae is a major source of this gas, along with other stinky chemicals.

Although you may not enjoy the smell, a high concentration of algae is a strong sign of good air quality on the water. Just like other plant species, algae absorbs carbon dioxide and other air pollutants. In fact, it’s such an effective air purifier that cities are now using algae curtains to fight against urban air pollution.

Running water is a different story. Rivers, creeks and streams that contain class II rapids or above are moving too fast for algae to grow on the surface, so a different smell develops. Instead of the rotten egg odor, they often smell more earthy and metallic. This odor develops because the water is carrying deposits of numerous minerals, including iron, copper and zinc.

You might have noticed a similar smell and taste from your water at home. Metal fittings, tanks and pipes often develop high concentrations of metallic particles. If groundwater is your main water source, the odor and flavor can be even more potent.

Unlike the rotten egg scent from algae, the earthy scent of running water is actually pleasant. It makes the air feel fresher and adds another layer of immersiveness to the outdoor experience. Next time you’re canoeing or kayaking down a fast-moving river, be sure to take in the flowing water’s unique smell.

An Escape from Urban Pollution

We’ve talked a lot about how outdoor environments naturally improve air quality, but they can’t remove every pollutant. Your local lake or river probably still has some contaminants. However, it still feels much cleaner compared to the air found in urban environments. You should notice a stark difference in air quality after leaving the city and going on an outdoor retreat.

Urban areas have terrible air quality for a multitude of reasons. Here are some of the biggest contributing factors.

1.   The Built Environment

The main reason for poor urban air quality is the construction of the cities themselves. The building and construction sector accounted for about 37% of global carbon emissions in 2021, which was an all-time high. Materials contain a concoction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that release into the atmosphere during construction.

The average household also has a concerning amount of pollutants due to poor ventilation. In fact, indoor air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Poor ventilation leads to high concentrations of particulate matter and invisible gasses like carbon monoxide. The air on any body of water is much cleaner than the air you breathe inside your house.

2.   Transportation

Cities contain thousands of vehicles that release tons of new pollutants into the air every day. Their exhaust fumes contain a concoction of harmful gasses that affect the global atmosphere. Vehicle exhaust is one of the main ingredients of the thick layer of smog that you see covering cities like Shanghai and Los Angeles.

The smog in Canadian cities isn’t as noticeable as smog in other countries, but it’s still there. Once you escape the urban pollution and visit a remote area, you’ll realize how fresh and transparent the air is supposed to be. Lifetime city dwellers are in for a huge treat when they go on outdoor adventures and experience clean smogless air for the first time.

3.   Industrialization

Urban centers are full of industrial plants that burn through fossil fuels and consume endless amounts of energy. Industry and electrical generating factories produce more than 50% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. These emissions react with each other in the atmosphere and contribute to climate change.

4.   Waste

Cities also create an exuberant amount of municipal waste. Canada produces the most waste in the world and has more than 3000 active landfills. The waste that ends up in these landfills contaminates the surrounding air and runs off into the water supply. It also releases methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere, creating pockets of foul-smelling gas.

5.   Miscellaneous Products

Many miscellaneous household products that seem harmless actually contain harmful chemicals. Cleaning products, air fresheners, make-up, soap, bleach, antifreeze, carpeting and furniture are all contributing to urban pollution in small doses. When an entire population is using all of these products, the community’s air quality is going to decline.

Back Where You Belong

Air feels cleaner on the water because you finally get a break from urban pollutants. This experience is partly psychological. If you have an easier time breathing while fishing, canoeing, kayaking or doing other water activities, your mind is telling you something. You’re back where you belong, surrounded by natural scenery with no skyscrapers or electronics in sight.

When you return to nature, all of your senses come to life. The sights, sounds and smells are all distinct. The flowing water between your fingers just feels right. Food and drinks taste better. Simply spending more time outdoors is the ultimate mental health treatment for anxiety, depression, high stress levels and even short attention spans.

Even if the air quality on the water technically isn’t clean, you still breathe more easily because you’re immersed in nature doing something productive. Your body is relaxed and your state of mind is in a healthy place. Every breath you take feels like a treat.

Breathe the Free Air Again

Air quality around Canada’s bodies of water is generally clean because of the surrounding forests and natural water activity. It also feels cleaner because you’re used to dirty urban air and need to spend more time in nature.

Speaking of which, it’s time to plan an outdoor adventure and breathe the free air again. We will take you on a guided tour of a lake or river of your choosing and give you the ultimate canoeing experience. Check out our website for more details or give us a call at 705-789-6479 so we can tell you everything about the MHO Adventures experience!

Author Bio

Jack Shaw is an avid outdoorsman who loves to write about his adventures. He’s currently the senior writer of Modded.com, and has shared his stories about exploring the outdoors with Crow Survival, Outdoor Hacker, Undiscovered Mountains and more.