Earth, Climate & Environment

Earth's Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a layer of different gases that extends from Earth’s surface to the exosphere, the outer limit of the atmosphere, about 9,600 km (6,000 mi) above the surface. Near Earth’s surface, the atmosphere consists almost entirely of nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (21 percent). The remaining 1 percent of atmospheric gases consists of argon (0.9 percent); carbon dioxide (0.03 percent); varying amounts of water vapor; and trace amounts of hydrogen, nitrous oxide, ozone, methane, carbon monoxide, helium, neon, krypton, and xenon.

Layers of the Atmosphere

The layers of the atmosphere are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere. The troposphere is the layer in which weather occurs and extends from the surface to about 16 km (about 10 mi) above sea level at the equator. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which has an upper boundary of about 50 km (about 30 mi) above sea level. The layer from 50 to 90 km (30 to 60 mi) is called the mesosphere. At an altitude of about 90 km, temperatures begin to rise. The layer that begins at this altitude is called the thermosphere because of the high temperatures that can be reached in this layer (about 1200°C, or about 2200°F). The region beyond the thermosphere is called the exosphere. The thermosphere and the exosphere overlap with another region of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere, a layer or layers of ionized air extending from almost 60 km (about 50 mi) above Earth’s surface to altitudes of 1,000 km (600 mi) and more.

Earth’s atmosphere and the way it interacts with the oceans and radiation from the Sun are responsible for the planet’s climate and weather. The atmosphere plays a key role in supporting life. Almost all life on Earth uses atmospheric oxygen for energy in a process known as cellular respiration, which is essential to life. The atmosphere also helps moderate Earth’s climate by trapping radiation from the Sun that is reflected from Earth’s surface. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere act as “greenhouse gases.” Like the glass in a greenhouse, they trap infrared, or heat, radiation from the Sun in the lower atmosphere and thereby help warm Earth’s surface. Without this greenhouse effect, heat radiation would escape into space, and Earth would be too cold to support most forms of life.

Other gases in the atmosphere are also essential to life. The trace amount of ozone found in Earth’s stratosphere blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Without the ozone layer, life as we know it could not survive on land. Earth’s atmosphere is also an important part of a phenomenon known as the water cycle or the hydrologic cycle. See also Atmosphere.

The Atmosphere and the Water Cycle

The water cycle simply means that Earth’s water is continually recycled between the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land. All of the water that exists on Earth today has been used and reused for billions of years. Very little water has been created or lost during this period of time. Water is constantly moving on Earth’s surface and changing back and forth between ice, liquid water, and water vapor.

The water cycle begins when the Sun heats the water in the oceans and causes it to evaporate and enter the atmosphere as water vapor. Some of this water vapor falls as precipitation directly back into the oceans, completing a short cycle. Some of the water vapor, however, reaches land, where it may fall as snow or rain. Melted snow or rain enters rivers or lakes on the land. Due to the force of gravity, the water in the rivers eventually empties back into the oceans. Melted snow or rain also may enter the ground. Groundwater may be stored for hundreds or thousands of years, but it will eventually reach the surface as springs or small pools known as seeps. Even snow that forms glacial ice or becomes part of the polar caps and is kept out of the cycle for thousands of years eventually melts or is warmed by the Sun and turned into water vapor, entering the atmosphere and falling again as precipitation. All water that falls on land eventually returns to the ocean, completing the water cycle.
See: Earth