Ground-based monitoring networks for evaluating atmospheric composition relevant to impacts on human health and the environment now exist worldwide (according to the United Nations Environment Programme, 48% of countries have an air quality monitoring system). Of course, this has not always been the case. Here, we analyse for the first time the key developments in network coordination and standardisation over the last 150 years that underpin the current implementations of city-scale to global monitoring networks for atmospheric composition. Examples include improvements in respect of site type and site representativeness, measurement methods, quality assurance, and data archiving. From the 1950s, these developments have progressed through two distinct types of network: those designed for the protection of human health, and those designed to increase scientific understanding of atmospheric composition and its interaction with the terrestrial environment. The step changes in network coordination and standardisation have increased confidence in the comparability of measurements made at different sites. Acknowledged limitations in the current state of monitoring networks include a sole focus on compliance monitoring. In the context of the unprecedented volumes of atmospheric composition data now being collected, we suggest the next developments in network standardisation should include more integrated analyses of monitor and other relevant data within “chemical climatology” frameworks that seek to more directly link the impacts, state and drivers of atmospheric composition. These approaches would also enhance the role of monitoring networks in the development and evaluation of air pollution mitigation strategies.
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