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The Earth's

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.
Layers of the Earth's atmosphere

The Troposphere

The troposphere is where all weather takes place; it is the region of rising and falling
packets of air. The air pressure at the top of the troposphere is only 10% of that at
sea level (0.1 atmospheres). There is a thin buffer zone between the troposphere and
the next layer called the tropopause.

The Stratosphere and Ozone Layer

Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, where air flow is mostly horizontal. The
thin ozone layer in the upper stratosphere has a high concentration of ozone, a
particularly reactive form of oxygen. This layer is primarily responsible for
absorbing the ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. The formation of this layer is a
delicate matter, 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, where it is quite hazardous to the evolution of life. There is considerable
recent concern that manmade flourocarbon compounds may be depleting the ozone
layer, with dire future consequences for life on the Earth.

The Mesosphere and Ionosphere

Above the stratosphere is the mesosphere and above that is the ionosphere (or
thermosphere), where many atoms are ionized (have gained or lost electrons so they
have a net electrical charge). The ionosphere is very thin, but it is where aurora take
place, and is also responsible for absorbing the most energetic photons from the
Sun, and for reflecting radio waves, thereby making long-distance radio
communication possible.

The structure of the ionosphere is strongly influenced by the charged particle wind
from the Sun (solar wind), which is in turn governed by the level of Solar activity.
One measure of the structure of the ionosphere is the free electron density, which is
an indicator of the degree of ionization. Here are electron density contour maps of
the ionosphere for months in 1957 to the present. 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

Electron Density

The adjacent animations simulate the variation by month of the ionosphere for two
different years:

1. The year 1990 (upper image), which was a period of high solar activity with many (150)
2. The year 1996 (lower image), which was a period of low solar activity with few (10)

The plots show electron density contours, which are an indication of the amount of
ionization in the atmosphere. Yellows and reds indicate larger ionization and blues and
greens indicate smaller ionization. Notice the substantial differences in these two
animations, with much stronger atmospheric ionization in the upper image (the active Sun
of 1990) than the lower image (the quiet Sun of 1996).

The adjacent images are based on these electron density contour maps of the
ionosphere for months in the year 1957 to the present. Additional animations may be
found in this NOAA directory.

Notice the substantial differences in these two animations, corresponding to the

strong influence of solar activity on the structure of the Earth's ionosphere.
Without our atmosphere, there would be no life on earth. Two gases make up the bulk of the earth's
atmosphere: nitrogen (78%), and oxygen (21%). Argon, carbon dioxide and various trace gases make up the
remainder. Scientists divided the atmosphere into four layers according to temperature: troposphere,
stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. The temperature drops as we go up through the troposphere,
but it rises as we move through the next layer, the stratosphere. The farther away from earth, the thinner the
atmosphere gets.


This is the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface, extending up to about 10-15 km above
the Earth's surface. It contains 75% of the atmosphere's mass. The troposphere is wider at the equator
than at the poles. Temperature and pressure drops as you go higher up the troposphere.
The Tropopause: At the very top of the troposphere is the
tropopause where the temperature reaches a (stable)
minimum. 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. If there is
no cold trap, Earth would loose all its water!

The uneven heating of the regions of the troposphere by the

Sun causes convection currents and winds. Warm air from
Earth's surface rises and cold air above it rushes in to
replace it. When warm air reaches the tropopause, it cannot
go higher as the air above it (in the stratosphere) is warmer
and lighter ... preventing much air convection beyond the
tropopause. The tropopause acts like an invisible barrier and is the reason why most clouds form and
weather phenomena occur within the troposphere.

The Greenhouse Effect: Heat from the Sun warms the Earth's surface but most of it is radiated and
sent back into space. Water vapour and carbon dioxide in the troposphere trap some of this heat,
preventing it from escaping thus keep the Earth warm. This trapping of heat is called the "greenhouse

However, if there is too much carbon dioxide in the troposphere then it will trap too much heat.
Scientists are afraid that the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide would raise the Earth's surface
temperature, bringing significant changes to worldwide weather patterns ... shifting in climatic zones
and the melting of the polar ice caps, which could raise the level of the world's oceans.

Do you know why the amount of carbon dioxide is increasing?


This layer lies directly above the troposphere and is about 35 km deep. It extends from about 15 to 50
km above the Earth's surface. 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. This temperature increase with altitude is the opposite of the situation in the

The Ozone Layer: The stratosphere contains a thin layer of ozone which absorbs most of the harmful
ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. The ozone layer is being depleted, and is getting thinner over Europe,
Asia, North American and Antarctica --- "holes" are appearing in the ozone layer.

Do you know why there are "ozone holes"?


Directly above the stratosphere, extending from 50 to 80 km above the Earth's surface, the mesosphere
is a cold layer where the temperature generally decreases with increasing altitude. Here in the
mesosphere, the atmosphere is very rarefied nevertheless thick enough to slow down meteors hurtling
into the atmosphere, where they burn up, leaving fiery trails in the night sky.

The thermosphere extends from 80 km above the Earth's surface to outer space. 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. However, 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.