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Which Electromagnetic Wavelengths Can Pass


Through the Atmosphere?
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The vast majority of electromagnetic radiation does not pass through our
atmosphere. We should be thankful for this, as if it did, life as we know it
would not exist. Harmful x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet light, most
deriving from the Sun, is absorbed in the upper atmosphere. Much infrared
radiation is also absorbed by carbon dioxide and water vapor in the
atmosphere. If it weren't, liquid water on the surface would be heated to
the boiling point and evaporate, leaving a dry planet similar to Venus.
Electromagnetic wavelengths above about 10 m (long-wavelength radio
waves) are absorbed the the blanket of charged particles encircling the
Earth, known as the ionosphere.
The most obvious category of electromagnetic wavelengths not absorbed
by the atmosphere is visible light, with amplitudes between about 300 and
700 nm. Because these are one of the most prominent categories of
electromagnetic wavelengths not absorbed by the atmosphere, frequently
generated by many common chemical reactions, and for many other
reasons, it is only natural that organisms which evolved on the surface of

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the Earth have developed sensory organs well attuned to it.


At electromagnetic wavelengths shorter than violet, which ends at about
280 nm, atmospheric transmittance rapidly drops off to near-zero.
Wavelengths longer than red, in the infrared portion of the spectrum, do
make it through to some degree. They are also generated locally by
anything that produces heat, and some organisms have evolved
adaptations which allow limited infrared vision.
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Radio waves with electromagnetic wavelengths between about 5 cm and 10


m easily make it through the atmosphere. This is why radio waves are
probably the third most-recognizable portion of the electromagnetic
spectrum behind visible light and infrared. The atmosphere's transparency
to these radio waves permits the technology of radio, as well as
sophisticated radio observatories which give us information about the
universe outside our tiny bubble. Astronomical observatories aiming for
information about electromagnetic wavelengths blocked by the
atmosphere either have to be floated on high-altitude balloons, or put on
satellites in orbit.
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