Saturday, September 17, 2011



The atmosphere is the mixture of gases and other materials that surround the Earth in a thin, mostly transparent shell. It is held in place by the Earth's gravity. The main components are nitrogen (78.09%), oxygen (20.95%), argon (0.93%), and carbon dioxide (0.03%). The atmosphere also contains small amounts, or traces, of water (in local concentrations ranging from 0% to 4%), solid particles, neon, helium, methane, krypton, hydrogen, xenon and ozone. The study of the atmosphere is called meteorology.

Life on Earth would not be possible without the atmosphere. Obviously, it provides the oxygen we need to breath. But it also serves other important functions. It moderates the planet's temperature, reducing the extremes that occur on airless worlds. For example, temperatures on the moon range from 120 °C (about 250 °F) in the day to -170 °C (about -275 °F) at night. The atmosphere also protects us by absorbing and scattering harmful radiation from the sun and space.

Of the total amount of the sun's energy that reaches the Earth, 30% is reflected back into space by clouds and the Earth's surface. The atmosphere absorbs 19%. Only 51% is absorbed by the Earth's surface.

We are not normally aware of it but air does have weight. The column of air above us exerts pressure on us. This pressure at sea level is defined as one atmosphere. Other equivalent measurements you may hear used are 1,013 millibars, 760 mm Hg (mercury), 29.92 inches of Hg, or 14.7 pounds/square inch (psi). Atmospheric pressure decreases rapidly with height. Pressure drops by a factor of 10 for every 16 km (10 miles) increase in altitude. This means that the pressure is 1 atmosphere at sea level, but 0.1 atmosphere at 16 km and only 0.01 atmosphere at 32 km.

The density of the lower atmosphere is about 1 kg/cubic meter (1 oz./cubic foot). There are approximately 300 billion billion (3 x 10**20, or a 3 followed by 20 zeros) molecules per cubic inch (16.4 cubic centimeters). At ground level, each molecule is moving at about 1600 km/hr (1000 miles/hr), and collides with other molecules 5 billion times per second.

The density of air also decreases rapidly with altitude. At 3 km (2 miles) air density has decreased by 30%. People who normally live closer to sea level experience temporary breathing difficulties when traveling to these altitudes. The highest permanent human settlements are at about 4 km (3 miles).


The atmosphere is divided into layers based on temperature, composition and electrical properties. These layers are approximate and the boundaries vary, depending on the seasons and latitude. (The boundaries also depend on which "authority" is defining them.)



· The lowest 100 km (60 miles), including the Troposphere, Stratosphere and Mesosphere.

· Contains 99% of the atmosphere's mass.

· Molecules do not stratify by molecular weight.

· Although small local variations exist, it has a relatively uniform composition, due to continuous mixing, turbulence and eddy diffusion.

· Water is one of two components that is not equally distributed. As water vapor rises, it cools and condenses, returning to earth as rain and snow. The Stratosphere is extremely dry.

· Ozone is another molecule not equally distributed. (Read about the ozone layer in the Stratosphere section below.)


· Extends above homosphere, including the Thermosphere and Exosphere.

·Stratified (components are separated in layers) based on molecular weight. The heavier molecules, like nitrogen and oxygen, are concentrated in the lowest levels. The lighter ones, helium and hydrogen, predominate higher up.


Neutral atmosphere

· Below about 100 km (60 miles)


· Above about 100 km

· Contains electrically charged particles or ions, created by the absorption of UV (ultraviolet) light.

· The degree of ionization varies with altitude.

· Different layers reflect long and short radio waves. This allows radio signals to be sent around the curved surface of the earth.

· The Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis (the Northern and Southern Lights) occur in this layer.

· The Magnetosphere is the upper part of the ionosphere, extending out to 64,000 km (40,000 miles।) It protects us from the high energy, electrically charged particles of the solar wind, which are trapped by the Earth's magnetic field.