Unit IV




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 sur face, which was extremely hot at that time. The cyclic process of evaporation and precipitation expedited further cooling of the earth. When the earth’s crust finally cooled sufficiently, torrential rain lasting for considerable time filled ocean basins. The carbon dioxide reacted with the silicate of the earth’s 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 biochemical 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 biochemical 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.


tmosphere is a gaseous envelope extending thousands of kilometres above the earth’s 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’s surface and is held to it by the force of gravity. The atmosphere is energised by the sun. ORIGIN OF THE ATMOSPHERE Today’s 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, for ming 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).



COMPOSITION 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 — nitrogen, oxygen and argon. There are in addition rare gases like neon, krypton, and xenon, also called noble gases. This layer is generally, called homosphere. Above 90 km, the composition begins to change with progressive increase in the lighter gases. This layer is known as heterosphere. 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’t take part in chemical reaction) and huge amount of solid and liquid particles, collectively called aerosols.
Table 9.1 : Composition of the Atmosphere Component Nitrogen (N2) Oxygen (O2) Argon (Ar) Carbon dioxide (CO2) Neon (Ne) Helium (He) Ozone (O3) Hydrogen (H) Methane (CH4) Krypton (Kr) Xenon (Xe) Per Cent by Volume 78.08 20.94 0.93 0.03 0.0018 0.0005 0.00006 0.00005 Trace Trace Trace

thus, allows the lower atmosphere to be warmed up by heat radiation coming from the sun and from the earth’s 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’s 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’s 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. STRUCTURE

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

On the basis of the chemical composition, the atmosphere is divided into two broad layers: — homosphere and heterosphere. The homosphere extends upto the height of 90 km. It is characterised by uniformity in chemical composition. It consists of three thermal layers — troposphere, stratosphere and mesosphere. Each sub-layer is separated from the adjoining layer by a shallow transitional zone identified by terms ending with “pause” (Table 9.2). The heterosphere has heterogeneous chemcial composition with layered structure of



nitrogen, oxygen, helium and hydrogen, respectively (Fig. 9.1). Homosphere The lowermost layer of the homosphere is called troposphere. It is 16 km thick at the equator and 10 km thick at the poles. The

temperature decreases with altitude because the atmosphere is heated more by the heat radiated from the earth’s surface. In this layer, the temperature decreases vertically at a rate of 0.65 O C per 100 metres. It is called normal lapse rate. A minimum of –60 O C is reached at the

Fig.9.1 : Structure of the Atmosphere





tropopause. Most of the atmospheric processes responsible for the weather and climate conditions take place in this layer. Above the tropopause is calm and clear air of the stratosphere. Jet aircraft often fly through the lower stratosphere because it provides easiest flying conditions. The total absence of water vapour in this layer prevents the formation of clouds, thus, providing finest visibility. Ozone layer lies within the stratosphere. It is more abundant in the altitude zone of 20 and 22 km. The ultraviolet radiation is more plentiful in the vicinity of 40 to 50 km. Ozone layer shields the earth from ultraviolet radiation. But for the Ozone layer, life would have been impossible on the surface of the earth. Temperature rises from –600C at the base of the stratosphere to 00C, at its upper boundary, called stratopause. Above the stratopause, is the mesosphere. The mesosphere extends from 50 to 90 km altitude. Temperature decreases again with height in this layer. It reaches a minimum of – 110 0 C at an altitude of 80-90 km in the mesopause. Mesosphere displays high wispy clouds in high latitudes during summer due to reflected sunlight from meteriotic dust particles.

Heterosphere Heterosphere is a layered ther mosphere extending above the mesopause and continues to the edge of space. Temperature rises spectacularly in this layer and reaches 9000 C at 350 km. In the lower part of the thermosphere between 100 to 400 km, ionisation of atmospheric gases takes place. There is a peak, concentration of ionized particles at 250 km. This layer, known as ionosphere, reflects radio waves. Ionized particles intermittently create a sheet like display of light called Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere and Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere. In the upper thermosphere there is further concentration of ions that comprise Van Allen Radiation belt. Outer most layer is called exosphere or at times magnetosphere. The thermosphere has distinct layers of nitrogen, oxygen, helium and hydrogen at an average altitude of 200km, 1,100km, 2,600 and 9,600km respectively from the earth’s surface. WEATHER AND CLIMATE Weather is the physical condition or state of the atmosphere at any given time. As these

Table 9.2 : Structure of the Atmosphere Broad Layers HOMOSPHERE Name of Sub-Layers Troposphere Tropopause Stratosphere Stratopause Mesosphere Mesopause Thermosphere Ionosphere Altitude (km) 0-16 (at the equator) 0-10 (at the poles). 10 (at poles) to 16 (at equator) 10-16 to 50 50 50-85 85-90 90+ 200 1,100 1,700 2,600 9,600


Nitrogen layer Oxygen layer Helium layer Hydrogen layer

Exosphere Magnetosphere



conditions change, so also the weather. Thus, weather of any place is the sum total of its temperature, pressure, winds, moisture and precipitation conditions for a short period of a day or a week. Climate on the other hand is the composite weather conditions over a considerable period of time. It is not just “average weather”. The deviations from the averages are equally important. ‘It is not the averages, but extremes that kill.’ If we wish to gain an accurate picture of weather and climate of any station we should look beyond the annual averages and monthly averages. We should know the day-to-day extremes too. The principal elements of weather and climate are : • Temperature; • Pressure and wind; • Moisture and precipitation. These are called elements because they are the ingredients out of which various weather and climatic types are compounded. The temperature and precipitation are the main basic elements to which pressure, winds and other elements are related. Temperature expresses intensity of heat. Practically, all of the heat energy on the earth is the result of insolation or the incoming solar radiation. Unequal distribution of temperature over the earth’s sur face causes dif ferences in atmospheric pressure, which causes winds. Air

moves from regions of high to low pressure areas. Horizontal motion of the air is known as wind. Moisture is present in the atmosphere as water vapour, often condensed into clouds. It may be precipitated in the form of rain, hail, sleet or snow. The capacity of air to gather and retain water vapour is largely dependent on its temperature. Higher the temperature, the greater the capacity of air to hold moisture. On cooling, the air is not able to retain all the moisture it gathers while warm. This leads to condensation and precipitation. From the above statements it is clear that temperature is the basic element on which other elements of climate depend. Further, the operation of elements of weather and climate are closely interrelated and interdependent. The climatic elements vary from place to place due to climatic controls. The climatic controls are : • Latitude or insolation; • Distribution of land and water; • The great semi permanent high and low pressure belts; • Winds; • Altitude; • Mountain barriers; • Ocean currents; • Storms of various kinds, etc. These controls acting with various intensities and in different combinations, produce changes in temperature and precipitation, which in turn give rise to a variety of weather and climates.


Review Questions 1. Answer the following questions: (i) What holds the atmosphere to the earth? (ii) What is heterosphere? (iii) Which are the major constituents of clean dry air of atmosphere? (iv) Which gas of the atmosphere does not take part in chemical reaction? (v) What are aerosols ? (vi) Which gas despite its small percentage is crucial in atmospheric processes? (vii) Why are the water vapour and dust particles important variables of weather and climate? (viii) What is meant by normal lapse rate?



2. Give a single term for each of the following: (i) The zone which separates the troposphere from the stratosphere. (ii) Lower most layer of the atmosphere. (iii) A useful gas found in small amount in the atmosphere that shields the earth from ultraviolet rays. (iv) Sheet like display of light in the northern hemisphere caused by ionized particles in the atmosphere. (v) The physical condition or state of the atmosphere at any given time. 3. Write short notes on: (i) Origin of the atmosphere; (ii) Homosphere; (iii) Ionisation of atmospheric gases. 4. Discuss the composition of the atmosphere and the importance of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. 5. Describe the structure of the atmosphere and the main characteristics of each layer. 6. Discuss principal elements of weather and climate and the major climatic controls.

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