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Chapter 9

Chapter 9

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Published by: api-3749116 on Oct 15, 2008
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Unit IV
tmosphere is a gaseous envelope
extending thousands of kilometres

above the earth\u2019s surface. Much of the life on the earth exists at the bottom of the atmosphere where it meets the lithosphere and the hydrosphere. Very survival of life processes are associated with it. The influence of the atmosphere on humans is not only direct but also indirect through natural vegetation, soil and topography. Among the four major elements of environment, the atmosphere is the most dynamic as changes in it take place not only from one season to another but also within a short period of few hours. Of the total mass of the atmosphere, 99 per cent is within the height of 32 km from the earth\u2019s surface and is held to it by the force of gravity. The atmosphere is energised by the sun.


Today\u2019s atmosphere is the result of very gradual change starting about 5 billion years ago by accretion of cold particles chiefly of iron and magnesium silicate, iron and graphite. Then, the earth was too small to retain the primordial atmosphere of light gasses. Gravitational collapse and radioactive decay caused the earth to heat up and material differentiated giving central solid nickel-iron core, liquid iron silicate shell, a mantle and lithosphere. In this process, degassing took place, forming a new atmosphere and hydrosphere. This atmosphere was devoid of free oxygen but contained methane, ammonia (10-68 per cent), carbon dioxide (10-15 per cent) and water vapour (60-70 per cent).

Compounds of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen were generated under the influence of energy sources such as lightening, solar radiation or radioactive discharges. Subsequently, the heaviest rains started, but falling of rain drops evaporated before reaching the earth surface, which was extremely hot at that time. The cyclic process of evaporation and precipitation expedited further cooling of the earth. When the earth\u2019s crust finally cooled sufficiently, torrential rain lasting for considerable time filled ocean basins. The carbon dioxide reacted with the silicate of the earth\u2019s crust to form carbonate. Therefore, carbon dioxide was gradually removed from the atmosphere.

The process of life thus, began about 3 billion years ago in the form of anaerobic bio- chemical organism that were dependent upon ambient organic molecules for nourishment. About 2 billion years ago, biological evolution took another revolutionary step. A few organism succeeded in changing their mode of existence from fermentation and bio- chemical synthesis to more efficient mode of photosynthesis and respiration. This set a stage for release of oxygen, and fixation of nitrogen. As organisms that could not tolerate free oxygen were partially replaced by more efficient respiring forms. Carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere was reduced; ozone formed a screen against incoming ultraviolet radiation; and organic deposits began to accumulate forming coal and oilfields. All this fundamentally changed the previous geochemistry of the earth. The cycle of majority of chemical elements were reoriented. And thus, the composition of the terrestrial atmosphere took the present shape.


The composition of the atmosphere is shown in Table 9.1. Upto an altitude of about 90 km, it is uniform in terms of three major gases \u2014 nitrogen, oxygen and argon. There are in addition rare gases like neon, krypton, and xenon, also called noble gases. This layer is generally, calledh o m o s p h e re. Above 90 km, the composition begins to change with progressive increase in the lighter gases. This layer is known asheter osphere.

The oxygen and nitrogen, make up about 99 per cent of the clean dry air of the homosphere. In addition, it contains small amount of carbon dioxide, water vapour, ozone, inert gases like xenon, krypton, neon and argon (which don\u2019t take part in chemical reaction) and huge amount of solid and liquid particles, collectively calledaerosols.

Table 9.1 : Composition of the Atmosphere
Per Cent by Volume
Nitrogen (N2)
Oxygen (O2)
Argon (Ar)
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Neon (Ne)
Helium (He)
Ozone (O3)
Hydrogen (H)
Methane (CH4)
Krypton (Kr)
Xenon (Xe)

Even though nitrogen and oxygen comprise 99 per cent of the total volume of the atmosphere, they are climatically of little consequence. Nitrogen does not easily enter into chemical union with other substances, but gets fixed into the soil. It serves mainly as diluent or dissolver. It regulates combustion. Oxygen on the other hand combines with all the elements and is most combustible.

Carbon dioxide although constitutes a small percentage, is an important gas in the atmospheric process. It can absorb heat and

thus, allows the lower atmosphere to be warmed up by heat radiation coming from the sun and from the earth\u2019s surface. Green plants in the process of photosynthesis utilise carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There has been a pronounced increase (10 times) in the content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 1890 to 1970.

Ozone is found in very small fraction in the stratosphere between 20 and 25 km from the earth\u2019s surface. It is, however, very useful as it absorbs ultra-violet rays and thus, protects life from these harmful rays.

The water vapour and dust particles are the important variables of weather and climate. They are the sources of all forms of condensation and principal absorbers of heat received from the sun or radiated from the earth. Besides, they affect the stability of the atmosphere. Water vapour may not exceed 3 per cent to 4 per cent of total volume of air. The amount of water vapour in the atmosphere decreases from the equator towards the poles. Nearly 90 per cent of it lies upto 6 km of the atmosphere from the earth\u2019s surface. It is in this layer of the atmosphere where solid particles of dust, salt, pollens etc. are held in suspension. They act as hygroscopic nucleus with positive charge and entrap the negatively charged water particles to produce clouds. In the upper layer of the atmosphere microscopic dust particles scatter incoming solar rays and absorb all colours except blue, giving blue colour to the sky. The larger size particles on the other hand, are responsible for red and orange colours at sunrise and sunset.

On the basis of the chemical composition, the
atmosphere is divided into two broad layers: \u2014
homospherea n d heterosphere. The

homosphere extends upto the height of 90 km. It is characterised by uniformity in chemical composition. It consists of three thermal layers \u2014 troposphere, stratosphere and mesosphere. Each sub-layer is separated from the adjoining layer by a shallow transitional zone identified by terms ending with \u201cpause\u201d (Table 9.2). The heterosphere has heterogeneous chemcial composition with layered structure of

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