The Earth's Atmosphere

The present atmosphere of the Earth is probably not its original atmosphere. Our current atmosphere is what chemists would call an oxidizing atmosphere, while the original atmosphere was what chemists would call a reducing atmosphere. In particular, it probably did not contain oxygen.

Composition of the Atmosphere
The original atmosphere may have been similar to the composition of the solar nebula and close to the present composition of the Gas Giant planets, though this depends on the details of how the planets condensed from the solar nebula. That atmosphere was lost to space, and replaced by compounds outgassed from the crust or (in some more recent theories) much of the atmosphere may have come instead from the impacts of comets and other planetesimals rich in volatile materials. The oxygen so characteristic of our atmosphere was almost all produced by plants (cyanobacteria or, more colloquially, blue-green algae). Thus, the present composition of the atmosphere is 79% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, and 1% other gases.

Layers of the Atmosphere
The atmosphere of the Earth may be divided into several distinct layers, as the following figure indicates.

The formation of this layer is a delicate matter. where it is quite hazardous to the evolution of life.1 atmospheres). it is the region of rising and falling packets of air. where air flow is mostly horizontal. The Stratosphere and Ozone Layer Above the troposphere is the stratosphere. since only when oxygen is produced in the atmosphere can an ozone layer form and prevent an intense flux of ultraviolet radiation from reaching the surface. The air pressure at the top of the troposphere is only 10% of that at sea level (0. There is a thin buffer zone between the troposphere and the next layer called the tropopause. with dire future consequences for life on the Earth. There is considerable recent concern that manmade flourocarbon compounds may be depleting the ozone layer. This layer is primarily responsible for absorbing the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. a particularly reactive form of oxygen. The thin ozone layer in the upper stratosphere has a high concentration of ozone. The Mesosphere and Ionosphere .Layers of the Earth's atmosphere The Troposphere The troposphere is where all weather takes place.

Compare these simulations of the variation by month of the ionosphere for the year 1990 (a period of high solar activity with many sunspots) and 1996 (a period of low solar activity with few sunspots): Electron Density The adjacent animations simulate the variation by month of the ionosphere for two different years: 1. thereby making long-distance radio communication possible. . The plots show electron density contours. The adjacent images are based on these electron density contour maps of the ionosphere for months in the year 1957 to the present. Yellows and reds indicate larger ionization and blues and greens indicate smaller ionization. The structure of the ionosphere is strongly influenced by the charged particle wind from the Sun (solar wind). but it is where aurora take place. and is also responsible for absorbing the most energetic photons from the Sun. Notice the substantial differences in these two animations. The year 1996 (lower image). Notice the substantial differences in these two animations. 2.Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere and above that is the ionosphere (or thermosphere). which is an indicator of the degree of ionization. corresponding to the strong influence of solar activity on the structure of the Earth's ionosphere. One measure of the structure of the ionosphere is the free electron density. and for reflecting radio waves. which is in turn governed by the level of Solar activity. Additional animations may be found in this NOAA directory. where many atoms are ionized (have gained or lost electrons so they have a net electrical charge). which was a period of high solar activity with many (150) sunspots. which was a period of low solar activity with few (10) sunspots. Here are electron density contour maps of the ionosphere for months in 1957 to the present. The ionosphere is very thin. The year 1990 (upper image). with much stronger atmospheric ionization in the upper image (the active Sun of 1990) than the lower image (the quiet Sun of 1996). which are an indication of the amount of ionization in the atmosphere.

mesosphere. Two gases make up the bulk of the earth's atmosphere: nitrogen (78%). TROPOSPHERE This is the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface. It contains 75% of the atmosphere's mass. there would be no life on earth. the thinner the atmosphere gets. stratosphere. Scientists divided the atmosphere into four layers according to temperature: troposphere. the stratosphere. and thermosphere. The troposphere is wider at the equator than at the poles.Without our atmosphere. The farther away from earth. but it rises as we move through the next layer. extending up to about 10-15 km above the Earth's surface. 1. The temperature drops as we go up through the troposphere. and oxygen (21%). Argon. Temperature and pressure drops as you go higher up the troposphere. . carbon dioxide and various trace gases make up the remainder.

The Greenhouse Effect: Heat from the Sun warms the Earth's surface but most of it is radiated and sent back into space. . which could raise the level of the world's oceans. Do you know why there are "ozone holes"? 3... Scientists are afraid that the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide would raise the Earth's surface temperature."holes" are appearing in the ozone layer. Here in the mesosphere. If there is no cold trap.The Tropopause: At the very top of the troposphere is the tropopause where the temperature reaches a (stable) minimum. Earth would loose all its water! The uneven heating of the regions of the troposphere by the Sun causes convection currents and winds. the mesosphere is a cold layer where the temperature generally decreases with increasing altitude. leaving fiery trails in the night sky. preventing much air convection beyond the tropopause. MESOSPHERE Directly above the stratosphere. extending from 50 to 80 km above the Earth's surface.. This trapping of heat is called the "greenhouse effect". STRATOSPHERE This layer lies directly above the troposphere and is about 35 km deep.. it cannot go higher as the air above it (in the stratosphere) is warmer and lighter . Do you know why the amount of carbon dioxide is increasing? 2. The Ozone Layer: The stratosphere contains a thin layer of ozone which absorbs most of the harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. bringing significant changes to worldwide weather patterns . The lower portion of the stratosphere has a nearly constant temperature with height but in the upper portion the temperature increases with altitude because of absorption of sunlight by ozone. Warm air from Earth's surface rises and cold air above it rushes in to replace it. the atmosphere is very rarefied nevertheless thick enough to slow down meteors hurtling into the atmosphere. When warm air reaches the tropopause. if there is too much carbon dioxide in the troposphere then it will trap too much heat. North American and Antarctica --. It extends from about 15 to 50 km above the Earth's surface. Some scientists call the tropopause a "cold trap" because this is a point where rising water vapour cannot go higher because it changes into ice and is trapped. Water vapour and carbon dioxide in the troposphere trap some of this heat. preventing it from escaping thus keep the Earth warm. and is getting thinner over Europe. This temperature increase with altitude is the opposite of the situation in the troposphere. The tropopause acts like an invisible barrier and is the reason why most clouds form and weather phenomena occur within the troposphere. where they burn up. The ozone layer is being depleted. shifting in climatic zones and the melting of the polar ice caps. However. Asia.

THERMOSPHERE The thermosphere extends from 80 km above the Earth's surface to outer space. the thermosphere would actually feel very cold to us because of the probability that these few molecules will hit our skin and transfer enough energy to cause appreciable heat is extremely low.4. However. . The temperature is hot and may be as high as thousands of degrees as the few molecules that are present in the thermosphere receive extraordinary large amounts of energy from the Sun.