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Upper Atmosphere Basics

Unit 1 Understanding and observation of the mid atmosphere


The region of the atmosphere above the tropopause is called the stratosphere. In this unit, we look at how the stratosphere differs from the troposphere. We also investigate why there are other distinct layers in the atmosphere and how these layers are defined. We look at how the physical and meteorological parameters of the atmosphere change with altitude and investigate how the chemical composition changes with height. We also look at how modern measuring techniques, using satellites and lasers, have been used to provide us with this infomation.

LIDAR in Davis / Antarctica with aurora in the background Photo: David Correll - Australian Antarctic Division - http://www.antdiv.gov.au

Part 1: Layers
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Part 1: Players
The layers of the atmosphere The different layers we see in the atmosphere have different physical properties. As the altitude increases, atmospheric pressure decreases. This is because the density of the air decreases - the higher we go, the less air molecules we find in the same volume of space. Temperature, humidity and wind speed also change with altitude. If we look up into the sky from the ground we can't see the layers of the atmosphere, we either see a clear blue sky or clouds. However we get an idea that the properties of the atmosphere change with altitude if we travel by aeroplane. Regardless of the weather on the ground, we see blue sky with no clouds above us once we reach an altitude of 10 - 11 km. At this height we are in the tropopause or even the lower stratosphere. There are no clouds this high up simply because there isn't enough water in the air to allow them to form.

1. Blue sky above the clouds. source:www.freefoto.com

Why does the temperature change? Small scale temperature changes are seen in the atmosphere which occur as a result of local changes in conditions, for example, the land cools down and heats up more quickly than the sea. There are two main reasons why large scale changes in temperature are seen in the atmosphere: a) the surface of the Earth absorbs sunlight and heats up. As we move away from the warm surface of the Earth, the cooler the air becomes. This leads to a decrease in temperature with altitude.

2. Profiles of temperature, air pressure and air density with increasing altitude. adapted from: Schirmer Wetter und Klima - Wie funktioniert das? Please click to enlarge! (120 K)

Why does the temperature change? Small scale temperature changes are seen in the atmosphere which occur as a result of local changes in conditions, for example, the land cools down and heats up more quickly than the sea. There are two main reasons why large scale changes in temperature are seen in
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the atmosphere: a) the surface of the Earth absorbs sunlight and heats up. As we move away from the warm surface of the Earth, the cooler the air becomes. This leads to a decrease in temperature with altitude. b) the temperature of the atmosphere is also governed by the chemicals the air contains. Some chemicals are able to absorb sunlight themselves and heat up the air around them. Ozone (O3) molecules in the stratosphere are able to absorb ultra-violet radiation from the Sun and warm the surrounding air. This leads to an increase in the temperature in the stratosphere. The temperature increases with altitude until a local maximum is reached. This temperature maximum defines the border between the stratosphere and the next layer of the atmosphere above. This border is known as the stratopause. The layer above the stratosphere is known as the mesosphere and here temperature decreases with altitude. Another temperature increase takes place in the thermosphere, where nitrogen and oxygen absorb extremely energetic short wavelength ultra-violet radiation from the Sun and are partially converted into charged ions. This layer is, therefore, also known as the ionosphere.

2. Profiles of temperature, air pressure and air density with increasing altitude. adapted from: Schirmer - Wetter und Klima - Wie funktioniert das?

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Why does the pressure decrease? The difference between air and water is that air is compressible and water is not. If you are diving in the sea and have 10 metres of water above you, the pressure is 1 bar, if you have 20 metres of water above you it's 2 bar simply because the amount of water is doubled. However, air is different. Just imagine you have a tower of very light pillows. As the height of the tower increases, the pillows on the bottom of the tower become flatter due to the weight of the ones above. They can be compressed because they have a lot of free space in them. So at the end, you may have 10 pillows in the first 30 cm layer of your tower and only one in the 8th layer even though each pillow weighs the same. This is the same in the atmosphere. Therefore, meteorologists very often use pressure rather than height in metres to define the altitude of the atmosphere. The amount the air compresses depends a bit on the temperature but roughly we can divide the pressure by a factor of 2 for every 5.5 km increase in height. Click here for more detailed information on how atmospheric pressure is calculated. Is the thermosphere really that hot? Temperatures recorded in the thermosphere, 200 - 500 km up in the atmosphere, reach 500 - 1000 oC. Is it really that hot? The problem here is our definition of temperature. In the thermosphere the molecules have a huge amount of energy so the temperatures are correct. However, the number of molecules per volume of space is about one millionth of the number of molecules near the surface of the Earth. This means that the probability that the molecules will collide, transfer their energy and cause heating is extremely low. Therefore, the temperatures recorded in the thermosphere are good measures of molecular energy but not compable to temperatures measured with a thermometer on the ground.

3. Like a pillow tower: How air is compressed ... by Elmar Uherek

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4. a) Weather map at ground level. From: Schirmer - Wetter und Klima - Wie funktioniert das?

4. b) The same weather map at 300 hPa (about 9 km in altitude). Please note the wind speed symbols! From: Schirmer Wetter und Klima - Wie funktioniert das?

4. c) Have a look at the figure on the right and compare the wind speeds at the ground (dark blue, below) and at 9 km altitude (light blue, above) at the same places. What is the wind speed in km h-1 at the three marked locations?

How does the wind change? The figure above shows that wind speeds are much greater in the upper troposphere than they are lower in the atmosphere. So a normal wind speed at the tropopause is equivalent to a severe storm at ground level. As a result, air traffic uses a special weather forecasting system to take these changes in wind speed into account. Once we reach the stratosphere, however, wind speed decreases significantly.

5. Wind speed is often measured in knots where knot = kn = nautical mile h-1 or in km h-1. The correct unit is m s-1. 1 m s-1 = 3.6 km h-1 1 knot = 1.852 km h-1 The symbols in the weather map tell us the wind direction (where the wind comes from) and the wind speed in knots. As the example shows, a full sized tick mark represents a wind speed of 10 knots, a half sized tick mark represents a wind speed of 5 knots.

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6. Wind speed vertical profile. Data from a balloon experiment of the US national weather service. Published at Exploring Earth.

7. Comparisons of wind speed and temperature.

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Part 2: Composition
Composition of the stratosphere Most of the compounds released at the Earth's surface do not reach the stratosphere, instead they are: decomposed by the main tropospheric oxidants (hydroxyl radicals - OH, nitrate radicals - NO3, ozone - O3) broken down by sunlight deposited back to the surface of the Earth in rain or as particles trapped in the cold tropopause.

Because the temperature trend between the troposphere and the stratosphere reverses, there is almost no air exchange between these two layers. Mixing of air in the troposphere takes hours to days whereas mixing in the stratosphere takes months to years. One of the consequences of this lack of mixing between the troposphere and the stratosphere is that the water vapour content of the stratosphere is very low. Typical mixing ratios (see below for definition) are in the range of 2 - 6 ppm (parts per million) compared to 100 ppm in the upper troposphere and 1,000 40,000 ppm in the lower troposphere, close to the surface of the Earth. This means that stratospheric clouds form very rarely and only if temperatures are so low that ice crystals grow. These conditions generally only occur in the polar regions. However, increasing water vapour concentrations due to emissions from aeroplanes and higher temperatures due to tropospheric warming below may lead to more polar stratospheric clouds being formed in the future.

1. Polar stratospheric clouds over Kiruna / Sweden. source: MPI Heidelberg.

Inorganic compounds in the stratosphere Stratospheric chemistry is dominated by the chemistry of ozone. Between 85 and 90% of all the ozone in the atmosphere is found in the stratosphere. Ozone is formed when sunlight breaks down molecular oxygen (O2) in the stratosphere into oxygen atoms (O). The highly reactive oxygen atoms then react with more molecular oxygen to form ozone (O3). Most of the other gases in the stratosphere are either really long lived compounds emitted originally into the troposphere (such as the chlorofluorocarbons - CFC's) or are brought in by
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severe volcanic eruptions (generally sulphur containing compounds and aerosols). So inorganic compounds such as ozone, nitrogen oxides, nitric acid, sulphuric acid, halogens and halogen oxides from CFC's are the dominant chemicals in the stratosphere. Volcanic eruptions Severe volcanic eruptions can inject large quantities of gases and particles directly into the stratosphere. These gases include the halogen containting acids, hydrochloric acid (HCl) and hydrofluoric acid (HF) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) which is converted to sulphuric acid (H2SO4), one of the compounds responsible for cloud formation. The particles emitted include silicates and sulphates and these absorb sunlight in the stratosphere. Volcanic eruptions can, therefore, lead to a temporary warming in the stratosphere and a temporary cooling in the troposphere. These effects on temperature can last around 1 - 2 years. If the eruption is large enough, such the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in June 1991, the effect can be seen over the whole hemisphere.

2. Eruption of Mt. Pinatubo Philippines in June 2001. source: Cascades Volcano Observatory USGS Photo by Rick Hoblitt.

Understanding concentrations and mixing ratios We can express the amount of a compound in the atmosphere in two ways, relative and absolute: a) mixing ratio = the fraction of the compound as a proportion of all the air molecules present. If there are 40 ozone molecules in 1 million air molecules the mixing ratio is 40 ppm (parts per million). This is relative. b) concentration = the concentration of the molecules of the compound in a certain volume of air. If there are 100 molecules of ozone in one cubic meter of air, the concentration is 100 molecules m-3. This is absolute. If you know the air pressure, it is possible to convert between the two units. Pressure decreases with altitude, i.e. the higher we go in the stratosphere, the fewer molecules there are in each unit volume of air. This means that if the absolute amount of ozone remains the same as the altitude increases, the mixing ratio for ozone also increases. We can explain this general principle very simply. In a certain volume (light blue box) there is a certain number of air molecules (blue) and a certain number of ozone molecules (red). The number of air molecules decreases with altitude.

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3. Here the number of ozone molecules remains constant with altitude. As the total number of air molecules decreases with altitude, the ozone mxing ratio increases with altitude (see below).

3. b) Here the absolute number of ozone molecules decreases in parallel with the decrease in the number of air molecules. As a result, the mixing ratio remains constant as the altitude increases.

In reality, there is only around 1 molecule of ozone for every million molecules of air!

3. a) Simple ozone profile for the example above. The total concentration of air is given in blue, the ozone concentration in red and the ozone mixing ratio (% ozone) is shown in green. Since the number of ozone molecules stays constant but the total air concentration decreases, the mixing ratio increases with altitude.

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3. Simple ozone profile for the example above. The total concentration of air molecules is given in blue, the ozone concentration in red and the ozone mixing ratio (% ozone) in green. As the ozone concentration decreases in parallel with the decrease in the total concentration of air molecules, the ozone mixing ratio is constant with altitude.

Between the ground and the lower stratosphere, ozone mixing ratios tend to increase with altitude as ozone concentrations remain nearly constant but air becomes thinner. In the lower stratosphere, ozone concentrations increase with altitude (the example below shows an increase of a factor of eight) increasing ozone mixing ratios further. It is only above the ozone layer that mixing ratios are approximately constant with altitude.

4. Figure showing how the ozone mixing ratio and ozone concentration changes with altitude. source: adapted from IUP Bremen.

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Part 3: Observation
Measurements in the Stratosphere The stratosphere begins at an altitude of between 8 and 15 km and the interesting regions are higher than normal planes can fly. So how do we know about the chemistry of the stratosphere? In order to study the chemistry of the stratosphere we can either: 1. send measurement instruments into the stratosphere on special aircraft or on balloons. 2. use the characteristic way in which a specific chemical compound interacts with light to study the stratosphere from the ground or from space using satellites.

Aeroplanes Unique measurements have been made possible with special aeroplanes, such as the former Russian high altitude spy plane. This plane, now called "Geophysica", has been converted into an airborne laboratory and such planes can reach altitudes of around 20 km. The flights are very expensive and, as a result, this method is not used often. Balloons A more common alternative is to take measurements using meteorological balloons. Weather balloons can reach altitudes of between 30 and 35 km before they burst. They carry sensors to measure, for example, ozone and send the information back to Earth via a radio signal. As the balloon travels up through the air it sends continuous information back to Earth. Balloons are, therefore, a very useful and relatively inexpensive way of finding out about the vertical structure of the atmosphere.
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1. Geophysica - high altitude research aircraft. source:MDB Design Bureau

2. a) Start of an ozone balloon ascent at Hohenpeissenberg Observatory, Germany. Photo courtesy of Ulf Khler.

2. b) Ozone probe for balloon measurements. Photo courtesy of Ulf Khler, DWD Hohenpeissenberg.

Interaction of molecules with light The way in which different chemicals interact with light is really complicated. In very simple terms, something happens when light and matter interact. The light can be absorbed completely by the compound. It can be reflected or scattered directly back into space or can be taken up and re-emitted at a different energy (as a different wavelength). Its easy to see the impact of light absorption by clouds, water and large particles- direct sunlight is blocked by clouds, as we dive into the sea it becomes darker as more light is lost and a dust storm makes the sun look pale. Smaller molecules do the same. They can also absorb or reflect light, they can scatter the light back to Earth or absorb the light and re-emit less energetic light of a different wavelength. Examples of this are phosphorescence and fluorescence. These effects happen when chemicals take up daylight and emit different energy light which we can see in the dark. The sort of light re-emitted tells us something about the type of chemical and the intensity of the light tells us something about its concentration.

3. Phosphorescence takes place if light is absorbed and reemitted again at an other wavelength. source: composed from web-advertisements.

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Interaction of light with molecules in the stratosphere can be observed from the ground or measured from space using instruments mounted on satellites. LIDAR Lidar (LIght Detection And Ranging) is one technique which can be used from the ground. A short pulse of very intensive laser light is sent into the sky. After a while, light returns to Earth and is measured. This light gives us information about the compounds in the atmosphere (from the wavelength of the returning light) and at what concentration they occur (the intensity of the returning light). But how do we know how high up in the atmosphere these compounds are? Light has a certain velocity and the longer the light takes to come back to Earth, the higher the compounds are.

5. LIDAR measurements. Image source: University of Western Ontario.

4. How does a LIDAR work? Please press reload in order to restart the animation! by EU

The animation on the left shows a laser pulse (light blue) whose light is scattered back to Earth at three different altitudes by air molecules (green) and arrives at the detector (light green) at three different times.

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RADAR and SODAR Different variations of the wave detection and ranging technique can also be used. The best known is RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging), which is used to measure particles in the air and the properties of clouds. RADAR allows us to track thunderstorms over several hundred kilometers. If sound is used instead of light, the technique is known as SODAR (SOund Detection And Ranging) and this gives us a powerful tool for the measurements of wind speed and direction. Satellites Satellites observe our planet from space. Some of them observe just one area of the Earth and are known as geostationary satellites whereas others orbit the Earth at an altitude of between 500 and 1000 km and can circle the Earth in about 1.5 to 2 hours. Some of these satellites have instruments known as spectrometers aboard and these can detect different wavelengths of light and give us information on the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

6. SODAR - wind speed measurements. picture source: Meteotest

1. Using satellites we can measure the amount of sunlight scattered by clouds or air molecules. 2. Satellites can carry spectrometers which work in the infra-red region of the spectrum and measure long wave radiation coming directly from the Earth. 3. For certain positions of the Sun and the Earth, sunbeams pass through just air to the detector on the satellite. This can give us information on how concentrations of different molecules change throughout the atmosphere.

7. Different techniques of satellite measurements. scheme by Elmar Uherek.

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