Atmosphere of Earth
The atmosphere of Earth is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth's gravity. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention (greenhouse effect), and reducing temperature extremes between day and night (the diurnal temperature variation).
The common name given to the atmospheric gases used in breathing and photosynthesis is air. Dry air contains roughly (by volume) 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.039% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1%. While air content and atmospheric pressure vary at different layers, air suitable for the survival of terrestrial plants and terrestrial animals currently is only known to be found in Earth's troposphere and artificial atmospheres.
The atmosphere has a mass of about 5×1018 kg, three quarters of which is within about 11 km (6.8 mi; 36,000 ft) of the surface. The atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner with increasing altitude, with no definite boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. The Kármán line, at 100 km (62 mi), or 1.57% of the Earth's radius, is often used as the border between the atmosphere and outer space. Atmospheric effects become noticeable during atmospheric reentry of spacecraft at an altitude of around 120 km (75 mi). Several layers can be distinguished in the atmosphere, based on characteristics such as temperature and composition.
Air is mainly composed of nitrogen, oxygen, and argon, which together constitute the major gases of the atmosphere. Water vapor accounts for roughly 0.25% of the atmosphere by mass. The concentration of water vapor (a greenhouse gas) varies significantly from around 10 ppmv in the coldest portions of the atmosphere to as much as 5% by volume in hot, humid air masses, and concentrations are typically provided for dry air without any water vapor. The remaining gases are often referred to as trace gases, among which are the greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Filtered air includes trace amounts of many other chemical compounds. Many substances of natural origin may be present in small amounts as aerosol in an unfiltered air sample, including dust of mineral and organic composition, pollen and spores, sea spray, and volcanic ash. Various industrial pollutants also may be present as gases or aerosol, such as chlorine (elemental or in compounds), fluorine compounds and elemental mercury vapour. Sulfur compounds such as hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide [SO2] may be derived from natural sources or from industrial air pollution.
|ppmv: parts per million by volume (note: volume fraction is equal to mole fraction for ideal gas only, see volume (thermodynamics))|
|Nitrogen (N2)||780,840 ppmv (78.084%)|
|Oxygen (O2)||209,460 ppmv (20.946%)|
|Argon (Ar)||9,340 ppmv (0.9340%)|
|Carbon dioxide (CO2)||397 ppmv (0.0397%) going up ~2 ppmv a year|
|Neon (Ne)||18.18 ppmv (0.001818%)|
|Helium (He)||5.24 ppmv (0.000524%)|
|Methane (CH4)||1.79 ppmv (0.000179%)|
|Krypton (Kr)||1.14 ppmv (0.000114%)|
|Hydrogen (H2)||0.55 ppmv (0.000055%)|
|Nitrous oxide (N2O)||0.325 ppmv (0.0000325%)|
|Carbon monoxide (CO)||0.1 ppmv (0.00001%)|
|Xenon (Xe)||0.09 ppmv (9×10−6%) (0.000009%)|
|Ozone (O3)||0.0 to 0.07 ppmv (0 to 7×10−6%)|
|Nitrogen dioxide (NO2)||0.02 ppmv (2×10−6%) (0.000002%)|
|Iodine (I2)||0.01 ppmv (1×10−6%) (0.000001%)|
|Not included in above dry atmosphere:|
|Water vapor (H2O)||~0.25% by mass over full atmosphere, locally 0.001%–5% |
Structure of the atmosphere
In general, air pressure and density decrease with altitude in the atmosphere. However, temperature has a more complicated profile with altitude, and may remain relatively constant or even increase with altitude in some regions (see the temperature section, below). Because the general pattern of the temperature/altitude profile is constant and recognizable through means such as balloon soundings, the temperature behavior provides a useful metric to distinguish between atmospheric layers. In this way, Earth's atmosphere can be divided (called atmospheric stratification) into five main layers. From highest to lowest, these layers are:
The exosphere is the outermost layer of Earth's atmosphere, extending beyond the exobase at an altitude of about 600 km. It is mainly composed of hydrogen, helium and some heavier molecules such as nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide closer to the exobase. The atoms and molecules are so far apart that they can travel hundreds of kilometers without colliding with one another, so the atmosphere no longer behaves like a gas. These free-moving particles follow ballistic trajectories and may migrate in and out of the magnetosphere or the solar wind.
Temperature increases with height in the thermosphere from the mesopause up to the thermopause, then is constant with height. Unlike in the stratosphere, where a temperature inversion is caused by absorption of radiation by ozone, in the thermosphere the inversion is a result of the extremely low density of molecules. The temperature of this layer can rise to 1,500 °C (2,700 °F), though the gas molecules are so far apart that temperature in the usual sense is not well defined. The air is so rarefied that an individual molecule (of oxygen, for example) travels an average of 1 kilometer between collisions with other molecules. The International Space Station orbits in this layer, between 320 and 380 km (200 and 240 mi). Because of the relative infrequency of molecular collisions, air above the mesopause is poorly mixed compared with air below. While the composition from the troposphere to the mesosphere is fairly constant, above a certain point, air is poorly mixed and becomes compositionally stratified. The point dividing these two regions is known as the turbopause. The region below is the homosphere, and the region above is the heterosphere. The top of the thermosphere is the bottom of the exosphere, called the exobase. Its height varies with solar activity and ranges from about 350–800 km (220–500 mi; 1,100,000–2,600,000 ft).
The mesosphere extends from the stratopause at about 50 km (31 mi; 160,000 ft) to 80–85 km (50–53 mi; 260,000–280,000 ft). It is the layer where most meteors burn up upon entering the atmosphere. Temperature decreases with height in the mesosphere. The mesopause, the temperature minimum that marks the top of the mesosphere, is the coldest place on Earth and has an average temperature around −85 °C (−120 °F; 190 K). At the mesopause, temperatures may drop to −100 °C (−150 °F; 170 K). Due to the cold temperature of the mesosphere, water vapor is frozen, forming ice clouds (or Noctilucent clouds). A type of lightning referred to as either sprites or ELVES, form many miles above thunderclouds in the troposphere.
The stratosphere extends from the tropopause at about 12 km (7.5 mi; 39,000 ft) to about 51 km (32 mi; 170,000 ft). Temperature increases with height due to increased absorption of ultraviolet radiation by the ozone layer, which restricts turbulence and mixing. While the temperature may be −60 °C (−76 °F; 210 K) at the tropopause, the top of the stratosphere is much warmer, and may be near freezing. The stratopause, which is the boundary between the stratosphere and mesosphere, typically is at 50 to 55 km (31 to 34 mi; 160,000 to 180,000 ft). The pressure here is 1/1000 sea level.
The troposphere begins at the surface and extends to between 9 km (30,000 ft) at the poles and 17 km (56,000 ft) at the equator, with some variation due to weather. The troposphere is mostly heated by transfer of energy from the surface, so on average the lowest part of the troposphere is warmest and temperature decreases with altitude. This promotes vertical mixing (hence the origin of its name in the Greek word "τροπή", trope, meaning turn or overturn). The troposphere contains roughly 80% of the mass of the atmosphere. The tropopause is the boundary between the troposphere and stratosphere.
Apart from the five principal layers which are largely determined by temperature, several layers may be distinguished by other properties:
- The ozone layer is contained within the stratosphere. In this layer ozone concentrations are about 2 to 8 parts per million, which is much higher than in the lower atmosphere but still very small compared to the main components of the atmosphere. It is mainly located in the lower portion of the stratosphere from about 15–35 km (9.3–22 mi; 49,000–110,000 ft), though the thickness varies seasonally and geographically. About 90% of the ozone in our atmosphere is contained in the stratosphere.
- The ionosphere is a region of the atmosphere that is ionized by solar radiation. It stretches from 50 to 1,000 km (31 to 620 mi; 160,000 to 3,300,000 ft) and includes parts of the exosphere and the thermosphere. It forms the inner edge of the magnetosphere. It has practical importance because it influences, for example, radio propagation on the Earth. It is responsible for auroras.
- The homosphere and heterosphere are defined by whether the atmospheric gases are well mixed. In the homosphere the chemical composition of the atmosphere does not depend on molecular weight because the gases are mixed by turbulence. The homosphere includes the troposphere, stratosphere, and mesosphere. Above the turbopause at about 100 km (62 mi; 330,000 ft) (essentially corresponding to the mesopause), the composition varies with altitude. This is because the distance that particles can move without colliding with one another is large compared with the size of motions that cause mixing. This allows the gases to stratify by molecular weight, with the heavier ones such as oxygen and nitrogen present only near the bottom of the heterosphere. The upper part of the heterosphere is composed almost completely of hydrogen, the lightest element.
- The planetary boundary layer is the part of the troposphere that is nearest the Earth's surface and is directly affected by it, mainly through turbulent diffusion. During the day the planetary boundary layer usually is well-mixed, while at night it becomes stably stratified with weak or intermittent mixing. The depth of the planetary boundary layer ranges from as little as about 100 m on clear, calm nights to 3000 m or more during the afternoon in dry regions.
Pressure and thickness
The average atmospheric pressure at sea level is 1 standard atmosphere (atm)=101.3 kPa (kilopascals)=14.7 psi (pounds per square inch)=760 torr=29.92 inches of mercury (symbol Hg). Total atmospheric mass is 5.1480×1018 kg (1.135×1019 lb), about 2.5% less than would be inferred from the average sea level pressure and the Earth's area of 51007.2 megahectares, this portion being displaced by the Earth's mountainous terrain. Atmospheric pressure is the total weight of the air above unit area at the point where the pressure is measured. Thus air pressure varies with location and weather.
If the atmosphere had a uniform density, it would terminate abruptly at an altitude of 8.50 km (27,900 ft).[clarification needed] It actually decreases exponentially with altitude, dropping by half every 5.6 km (18,000 ft) or by a factor of 1/e every 7.64 km (25,100 ft), the average scale height of the atmosphere below 70 km (43 mi; 230,000 ft). However, the atmosphere is more accurately modeled with a customized equation for each layer that takes gradients of temperature, molecular composition, solar radiation and gravity into account.
In summary, the mass of Earth's atmosphere is distributed approximately as follows:
- 50% is below 5.6 km (18,000 ft).
- 90% is below 16 km (52,000 ft).
- 99.99997% is below 100 km (62 mi; 330,000 ft), the Kármán line. By international convention, this marks the beginning of space where human travelers are considered astronauts.
By comparison, the summit of Mt. Everest is at 8,848 m (29,029 ft); commercial airliners typically cruise between 10 km (33,000 ft) and 13 km (43,000 ft) where the thinner air improves fuel economy; weather balloons reach 30.4 km (100,000 ft) and above; and the highest X-15 flight in 1963 reached 108.0 km (354,300 ft).
Even above the Kármán line, significant atmospheric effects such as auroras still occur. Meteors begin to glow in this region though the larger ones may not burn up until they penetrate more deeply. The various layers of Earth's ionosphere, important to HF radio propagation, begin below 100 km and extend beyond 500 km. By comparison, the International Space Station and Space Shuttle typically orbit at 350–400 km, within the F-layer of the ionosphere where they encounter enough atmospheric drag to require reboosts every few months. Depending on solar activity, satellites can experience noticeable atmospheric drag at altitudes as high as 700–800 km.
Temperature and speed of sound
The division of the atmosphere into layers mostly by reference to temperature is discussed above. Temperature decreases with altitude starting at sea level, but variations in this trend begin above 11 km, where the temperature stabilizes through a large vertical distance through the rest of the troposphere. In the stratosphere, starting above about 20 km, the temperature increases with height, due to heating within the ozone layer caused by capture of significant ultraviolet radiation from the Sun by the dioxygen and ozone gas in this region. Still another region of increasing temperature with altitude occurs at very high altitudes, in the aptly-named thermosphere above 90 km.
Because in an ideal gas of constant composition the speed of sound depends only on temperature and not on the gas pressure or density, the speed of sound in the atmosphere with altitude takes on the form of the complicated temperature profile (see illustration to the right), and does not mirror altitudinal changes in density or pressure.
Density and mass
The density of air at sea level is about 1.2 kg/m3 (1.2 g/L). Density is not measured directly but is calculated from measurements of temperature, pressure and humidity using the equation of state for air (a form of the ideal gas law). Atmospheric density decreases as the altitude increases. This variation can be approximately modeled using the barometric formula. More sophisticated models are used to predict orbital decay of satellites.
The average mass of the atmosphere is about 5 quadrillion (5×1015) tonnes or 1/1,200,000 the mass of Earth. According to the American National Center for Atmospheric Research, "The total mean mass of the atmosphere is 5.1480×1018 kg with an annual range due to water vapor of 1.2 or 1.5×1015 kg depending on whether surface pressure or water vapor data are used; somewhat smaller than the previous estimate. The mean mass of water vapor is estimated as 1.27×1016 kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ±0.0003×1018 kg."
Solar radiation (or sunlight) is the energy the Earth receives from the Sun. The Earth also emits radiation back into space, but at longer wavelengths that we cannot see. Part of the incoming and emitted radiation is absorbed or reflected by the atmosphere.
When light passes through our atmosphere, photons interact with it through scattering. If the light does not interact with the atmosphere, it is called direct radiation and is what you see if you were to look directly at the Sun. Indirect radiation is light that has been scattered in the atmosphere. For example, on an overcast day when you cannot see your shadow there is no direct radiation reaching you, it has all been scattered. As another example, due to a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering, shorter (blue) wavelengths scatter more easily than longer (red) wavelengths. This is why the sky looks blue; you are seeing scattered blue light. This is also why sunsets are red. Because the Sun is close to the horizon, the Sun's rays pass through more atmosphere than normal to reach your eye. Much of the blue light has been scattered out, leaving the red light in a sunset.
Different molecules absorb different wavelengths of radiation. For example, O2 and O3 absorb almost all wavelengths shorter than 300 nanometers. Water (H2O) absorbs many wavelengths above 700 nm. When a molecule absorbs a photon, it increases the energy of the molecule. We can think of this as heating the atmosphere, but the atmosphere also cools by emitting radiation, as discussed below.
The combined absorption spectra of the gases in the atmosphere leave "windows" of low opacity, allowing the transmission of only certain bands of light. The optical window runs from around 300 nm (ultraviolet-C) up into the range humans can see, the visible spectrum (commonly called light), at roughly 400–700 nm and continues to the infrared to around 1100 nm. There are also infrared and radio windows that transmit some infrared and radio waves at longer wavelengths. For example, the radio window runs from about one centimeter to about eleven-meter waves.
Emission is the opposite of absorption, it is when an object emits radiation. Objects tend to emit amounts and wavelengths of radiation depending on their "black body" emission curves, therefore hotter objects tend to emit more radiation, with shorter wavelengths. Colder objects emit less radiation, with longer wavelengths. For example, the Sun is approximately 6,000 K (5,730 °C; 10,340 °F), its radiation peaks near 500 nm, and is visible to the human eye. The Earth is approximately 290 K (17 °C; 62 °F), so its radiation peaks near 10,000 nm, and is much too long to be visible to humans.
Because of its temperature, the atmosphere emits infrared radiation. For example, on clear nights the Earth's surface cools down faster than on cloudy nights. This is because clouds (H2O) are strong absorbers and emitters of infrared radiation. This is also why it becomes colder at night at higher elevations.
The greenhouse effect is directly related to this absorption and emission effect. Some gases in the atmosphere absorb and emit infrared radiation, but do not interact with sunlight in the visible spectrum. Common examples of these are CO2 and H2O.
The refractive index of air is close to, but just greater than 1. Systematic variations in refractive index can lead to the bending of light rays over long optical paths. One example is that, under some circumstances, observers onboard ships can see other vessels just over the horizon because light is refracted in the same direction as the curvature of the Earth's surface.
The refractive index of air depends on temperature, giving rise to refraction effects when the temperature gradient is large. An example of such effects is the mirage.
Atmospheric circulation is the large-scale movement of air through the troposphere, and the means (with ocean circulation) by which heat is distributed around the Earth. The large-scale structure of the atmospheric circulation varies from year to year, but the basic structure remains fairly constant as it is determined by the Earth's rotation rate and the difference in solar radiation between the equator and poles.
Evolution of Earth's atmosphere
The first atmosphere would have consisted of gases in the solar nebula, primarily hydrogen. In addition there would probably have been simple hydrides such as are now found in gas-giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, notably water vapor, methane and ammonia. As the solar nebula dissipated these gases would have escaped, partly driven off by the solar wind.
The next atmosphere, consisting largely of nitrogen plus carbon dioxide and inert gases, was produced by outgassing from volcanism, supplemented by gases produced during the late heavy bombardment of Earth by huge asteroids. A major part of carbon dioxide emissions were soon dissolved in water and built up carbonate sediments.
Water-related sediments have been found dating from as early as 3.8 billion years ago. About 3.4 billion years ago, nitrogen was the major part of the then stable "second atmosphere". An influence of life has to be taken into account rather soon in the history of the atmosphere, since hints of early life forms are to be found as early as 3.5 billion years ago. The fact that this is not perfectly in line with the 30% lower solar radiance (compared to today) of the early Sun has been described as the "faint young Sun paradox".
The geological record however shows a continually relatively warm surface during the complete early temperature record of the Earth with the exception of one cold glacial phase about 2.4 billion years ago. In the late Archaean eon an oxygen-containing atmosphere began to develop, apparently from photosynthesizing algae (see Great Oxygenation Event) which have been found as stromatolite fossils from 2.7 billion years ago. The early basic carbon isotopy (isotope ratio proportions) is very much in line with what is found today, suggesting that the fundamental features of the carbon cycle were established as early as 4 billion years ago.
The constant re-arrangement of continents by plate tectonics influences the long-term evolution of the atmosphere by transferring carbon dioxide to and from large continental carbonate stores. Free oxygen did not exist in the atmosphere until about 1.8 billion years ago during the Great Oxygenation Event and its appearance is indicated by the end of the banded iron formations. Before this time, any oxygen produced by photosynthesis was consumed by oxidation of reduced materials, notably iron. Molecules of free oxygen did not start to accumulate in the atmosphere until the rate of production of oxygen began to exceed the availability of reducing materials. This point signifies a shift from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing atmosphere. O2 showed major ups and downs until reaching a steady state of more than 15% by the end of the Precambrian. The following time span was the Phanerozoic eon, during which oxygen-breathing metazoan life forms began to appear.
The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has varied over the last 600 million years. Around 280 million years ago the amount of oxygen peaked around 30%, significantly higher than today's 21%. Two main processes govern changes in the atmosphere: Plants use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, releasing oxygen. Breakdown of pyrite and volcanic eruptions release sulfur into the atmosphere, which oxidizes and hence reduces the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. However, volcanic eruptions also release carbon dioxide, which plants can convert to oxygen. The exact cause of the variation of the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is not known. Periods with much oxygen in the atmosphere are associated with rapid development of animals. Today's atmosphere contains 21% oxygen, which is high enough for this rapid development of animals.
Air pollution is the introduction into the atmosphere of chemicals, particulate matter, or biological materials that cause harm or discomfort to organisms. Stratospheric ozone depletion is believed to be caused by air pollution (chiefly from chlorofluorocarbons).
Images from space
- Aerial perspective
- Air glow
- Atmosphere (for information on atmospheres in general)
- Atmospheric dispersion modeling
- Atmospheric electricity
- Atmospheric models
- Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) (in the U.S.)
- Atmospheric stratification
- Carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere
- Compressed air
- Environmental impact of aviation
- Global dimming
- Historical temperature record
- Hypermobility (travel)
- Kyoto Protocol
- Leaching (agriculture)
- Standard Dry Air
- COSPAR international reference atmosphere (CIRA)
- U.S. Standard Atmosphere
- Warm period
- Water vapor in Earth's atmosphere
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Earth's atmosphere|
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- NASA's Earth Fact Sheet
- American Geophysical Union: Atmospheric Sciences
- Outreach of the GEOmon project See how Earth atmosphere is observed and monitored by a European project that combines many approaches.
- Stuff in the Air Find out what the atmosphere contains.
- Layers of the Atmosphere
- Answers to several questions of curious kids related to Air and Atmosphere
- The AMS Glossary of Meteorology
- Paul Crutzen Interview Free video of Paul Crutzen Nobel Laureate for his work on decomposition of ozone talking to Harry Kroto Nobel Laureate by the Vega Science Trust.