Earth's atmosphere

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Atmospheric gases scatter blue light more than other wavelengths, giving the Earth a blue halo when seen from space

The Earth's atmosphere (or air) is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by the Earth's gravity. Dry air contains roughly (by volume) 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038% carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1%. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention (greenhouse effect), and reducing temperature extremes between day and night.

There is no definite boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. It slowly becomes thinner and fades into space. An altitude of 120 km (75 mi) marks the boundary where atmospheric effects become noticeable during reentry. The Kármán line, at 100 km (62 mi), is also frequently regarded as the boundary between atmosphere and outer space. Three quarters of the atmosphere's mass is within 11 km (6.8 mi; 36,000 ft) of the surface.


[edit] Temperature and layers

Layers of the atmosphere (not to scale)

The temperature of the Earth's atmosphere varies with altitude; the mathematical relationship between temperature and altitude varies among five different atmospheric layers (ordered highest to lowest, the ionosphere is part of the thermosphere):

From 500–1,000 km (310–620 mi; 1,600,000–3,300,000 ft) up to 10,000 km (6,200 mi; 33,000,000 ft), contain free-moving particles that may migrate into and out of the magnetosphere or the solar wind.
Also known as the 'critical level', it is the lower boundary of the exosphere.
The part of the atmosphere that is ionized by solar radiation stretches from 50 to 1,000 km (31 to 620 mi; 160,000 to 3,300,000 ft) and typically overlaps both the exosphere and the thermosphere. It plays an important part in atmospheric electricity and forms the inner edge of the magnetosphere. Because of its charged particles, it has practical importance because it influences, for example, radio propagation on the Earth. It is responsible for auroras.
The boundary above the thermosphere, it varies in height from 500–1,000 km (310–620 mi; 1,600,000–3,300,000 ft).
From 80–85 km (50–53 mi; 260,000–280,000 ft) to over 640 km (400 mi; 2,100,000 ft), temperature increasing with height. Although the temperature can rise to 1,500 °C (2,730 °F), a person would not feel warm because of the extremely low pressure. The International Space Station orbits in this layer, between 320 and 380 km (200 and 240 mi).
The temperature minimum at the boundary between the thermosphere and the mesosphere. It is the coldest place on Earth, with a temperature of −100 °C (−148.0 °F; 173.1 K).
From the Greek word "μέσος" meaning middle. The mesosphere extends from about 50 km (31 mi; 160,000 ft) to the range of 80–85 km (50–53 mi; 260,000–280,000 ft). Temperature decreases with height, reaching −100 °C (−148.0 °F; 173.1 K) in the upper mesosphere. This is also where most meteors burn up when entering the atmosphere.
The boundary between the mesosphere and the stratosphere, typically 50 to 55 km (31 to 34 mi; 160,000 to 180,000 ft). The pressure here is 1/1000th sea level.
From the Latin word "stratus" meaning spreading out. The stratosphere extends from the troposphere's 7–17 km (4.3–11 mi; 23,000–56,000 ft) range to about 51 km (32 mi; 170,000 ft). Temperature increases with height. The stratosphere contains the ozone layer, the part of the Earth's atmosphere which contains relatively high concentrations of ozone. "Relatively high" means a few parts per million—much higher than the concentrations in the lower atmosphere but still small compared to the main components of the atmosphere. It is mainly located in the lower portion of the stratosphere from approximately 15–35 km (9.3–22 mi; 49,000–110,000 ft) above Earth's surface, though the thickness varies seasonally and geographically.
Ozone Layer
Though part of the Stratosphere, the ozone layer is considered as a layer of the Earth's atmosphere in itself because its physical and chemical composition is far different from the Stratosphere. Ozone (O3) in the Earth's stratosphere is created by ultraviolet light striking oxygen molecules containing two oxygen atoms (O2), splitting them into individual oxygen atoms (atomic oxygen); the atomic oxygen then combines with unbroken O2 to create O3. O3 is unstable (although, in the stratosphere, long-lived) and when ultraviolet light hits ozone it splits into a molecule of O2 and an atom of atomic oxygen, a continuing process called the ozone-oxygen cycle. This occurs in the ozone layer, the region from about 10 to 50 km (33,000 to 160,000 ft) above Earth's surface. About 90% of the ozone in our atmosphere is contained in the stratosphere. Ozone concentrations are greatest between about 20 and 40 km (66,000 and 130,000 ft), where they range from about 2 to 8 parts per million.
The boundary between the stratosphere and troposphere.
From the Greek word "τρέπω" meaning to turn or change. The troposphere is the lowest layer of the atmosphere; it begins at the surface and extends to between 7 km (23,000 ft) at the poles and 17 km (56,000 ft) at the equator, with some variation due to weather factors. The troposphere has a great deal of vertical mixing because of solar heating at the area. This heating makes air masses less dense so they rise. When an air mass rises, the pressure upon it decreases so it expands, doing work against the opposing pressure of the surrounding air. To do work is to expend energy, so the temperature of the air mass decreases. As the temperature decreases, water vapor in the air mass may condense or solidify, releasing latent heat that further uplifts the air mass. This process determines the maximum rate of decline of temperature with height, called the adiabatic lapse rate. The troposphere contains roughly 80% of the total mass of the atmosphere. Fifty percent of the total mass of the atmosphere is located in the lower 5.6 km (18,000 ft) of the troposphere.

The average temperature of the atmosphere at the surface of Earth is 20 °C (68 °F; 293 K).[1][2]

[edit] Pressure and thickness

The average atmospheric pressure, at sea level, is about 1 atmosphere (atm) = 101.3 kPa (kilopascals) = 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch) = 760 torr = 29.9 inches of mercury (symbol Hg). Total atmospheric mass is 5.1480×1018 kg (1.135×1019 lb).[3]

Atmospheric pressure is a direct result of the total weight of the air above the point at which the pressure is measured. Air pressure varies with location and time, because the amount (and weight) of air above the earth varies with location and time. However, the average mass of the air above a square meter of the Earth's surface can be calculated from the total amount of air and the surface area of the Earth. The total air mass is 5148.0 teratonnes and area is 51007.2 megahectares. Thus 5148.0/510.072 = 10.093 tonnes (9.934 LT; 11.126 ST) per square meter or 14.356 pounds per square inch (98.98 kPa). This is about 2.5% below the officially standardized unit atmosphere (1 atm) of 101.325 kPa or 14.696 psi, and corresponds to the mean pressure not at sea level, but at the mean base of the atmosphere as contoured by the Earth's terrain.

Were atmospheric density to remain constant with height the atmosphere would terminate abruptly at 7.81 km (25,600 ft). Instead, density decreases with height, dropping by 50% at an altitude of about 5.6 km (18,000 ft). For comparison the highest mountain, Mount Everest, is higher, at 8.8 km (29,000 ft), so air is less than half as dense at the summit than at sea level. This is why it is so difficult to climb without supplemental oxygen.

This pressure drop is approximately exponential, so that pressure decreases by approximately half every 5.6 km (18,000 ft) and by 63.2% (1 − 1 / e = 1 − 0.368 = 0.632) every 7.64 km (25,100 ft), the average scale height of Earth's atmosphere below 70 km (43 mi; 230,000 ft). However, because of changes in temperature, average molecular weight, and gravity throughout the atmospheric column, the dependence of atmospheric pressure on altitude is modeled by separate equations for each of the layers listed above. Even in the exosphere, the atmosphere is still present. This can be seen by the effects of atmospheric drag on satellites.

In summary, the equations of pressure by altitude in the above references can be used directly to estimate atmospheric thickness. However, the following published data are given for reference:[4]

  • 50% of the atmosphere by mass is below an altitude of 5.6 km (18,000 ft).
  • 90% of the atmosphere by mass is below an altitude of 16 km (52,000 ft). The common altitude of commercial airliners is about 10 km (33,000 ft) and Mt. Everest's summit is 8,848 m (29,030 ft) above sea level.
  • 99.99997% of the atmosphere by mass is below 100 km (62 mi; 330,000 ft), although in the rarefied region above this there are auroras and other atmospheric effects. The highest X-15 plane flight in 1963 reached an altitude of 354,300 ft (108.0 km).

[edit] Composition

Composition of Earth's atmosphere as of Dec. 1987. The lower pie represents the least common gases that compose 0.038% of the atmosphere. Values normalized for illustration.

Filtered air includes trace amounts of many of the chemical elements. Substantial amounts of argon, nitrogen, and oxygen are present as elementary gases. Note the major greenhouse gases: water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Many additional elements from natural sources may be present in tiny amounts in an unfiltered air sample, including contributions from dust, pollen and spores, sea spray, vulcanism, and meteoroids. Various industrial pollutants are also now present in the air, such as chlorine (elementary or in compounds), fluorine (in compounds), elementary mercury, and sulfur (in compounds such as sulfur dioxide [SO2]).

Mean atmospheric water vapor
Composition of dry atmosphere, by volume[5]
ppmv: parts per million by volume
Gas Volume
Nitrogen (N2) 780,840 ppmv (78.084%)
Oxygen (O2) 209,460 ppmv (20.946%)
Argon (Ar) 9,340 ppmv (0.9340%)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) 383 ppmv (0.0383%)
Neon (Ne) 18.18 ppmv (0.001818%)
Helium (He) 5.24 ppmv (0.000524%)
Methane (CH4) 1.745 ppmv (0.0001745%)
Krypton (Kr) 1.14 ppmv (0.000114%)
Hydrogen (H2) 0.55 ppmv (0.000055%)
Nitrous oxide (N2O) 0.3 ppmv (0.00003%)
Xenon (Xe) 0.09 ppmv (9x10-6%)
Ozone (O3) 0.0 to 0.07 ppmv (0%-7x10-6%)
Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) 0.02 ppmv (2x10-6%)
Iodine (I) 0.01 ppmv (1x10-6%)
Carbon monoxide (CO) trace
Ammonia (NH3) trace
Not included in above dry atmosphere:
Water vapor (H2O) ~0.40% over full atmosphere, typically 1%-4% at surface

[edit] PPMV

The parts per million by volume figures above are by volume-fraction (V%), which for ideal gases is equal to mole-fraction (that is, the fraction of total molecules). Although the atmosphere is not an ideal gas, nonetheless the atmosphere behaves enough like an ideal gas that the volume-fraction is the same as the mole-fraction for the precision given.

By contrast, mass-fraction abundances of gases will differ from the volume values. The mean molar mass of air is 28.97 g/mol, while the molar mass of helium is 4.00, and krypton is 83.80. Thus helium is 5.2 ppm by volume-fraction, but 0.72 ppm by mass-fraction ([4/29] × 5.2 = 0.72), and krypton is 1.1 ppm by volume-fraction, but 3.2 ppm by mass-fraction ([84/29] × 1.1 = 3.2).

[edit] Heterosphere

Below the turbopause, at an altitude of about 100 km (62 mi; 330,000 ft) (not far from the mesopause), the Earth's atmosphere has a more-or-less uniform composition (apart from water vapor) as described above; this constitutes the homosphere.[6] However, above the turbopause, the Earth's atmosphere begins to have a composition which varies with altitude. This is because, in the absence of mixing, the density of a gas falls off exponentially with increasing altitude but at a rate which depends on the molar mass. Thus higher mass constituents, such as oxygen and nitrogen, fall off more quickly than lighter constituents such as helium and hydrogen. Thus there is a layer, called the heterosphere, in which the Earth's atmosphere has varying composition.

[edit] Density and mass

Temperature and mass density against altitude from the NRLMSISE-00 standard atmosphere model

The density of air at sea level is about 1.2 kg/m3 (1.2 g/L). Natural variations of the barometric pressure occur at any one altitude as a consequence of weather. This variation is relatively small for inhabited altitudes but much more pronounced in the outer atmosphere and space because of variable solar radiation.

The atmospheric density decreases as the altitude increases. This variation can be approximately modeled using the barometric formula. More sophisticated models are used by meteorologists and space agencies to predict weather and orbital decay of satellites.

The average mass of the atmosphere is about 5 quadrillion metric tons or 1/1,200,000 the mass of Earth. According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, "The total mean mass of the atmosphere is 5.1480 × 1018 kg with an annual range due to water vapor of 1.2 or 1.5 × 1015 kg depending on whether surface pressure or water vapor data are used; somewhat smaller than the previous estimate. The mean mass of water vapor is estimated as 1.27 × 1016 kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ±0.0003 × 1018 kg."

[edit] Opacity

Earth's atmosphere from space. The blue and red of the atmosphere is due to Rayleigh scattering; shorter (blue) wavelengths of light are scattered more easily than longer (red) wavelengths.

Solar radiation (or sunlight) is the energy the Earth receives from the Sun. The Earth also emits radiation back into space, but at longer wavelengths that we cannot see. Depending on its condition, the atmosphere can block radiation from coming in or going out. Important examples of this are clouds and the greenhouse effect.

[edit] Scattering

When light passes through our atmosphere, photons interact with it through scattering. If the light does not interact with the atmosphere, it is called direct radiation and is what you see if you were to look directly at the sun. Indirect radiation is light that has been scattered in the atmosphere. For example, on an overcast day when you can't see your shadow there is no direct radiation reaching you, it has all been scattered. As another example, due to a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering, shorter (blue) wavelengths scatter more easily than longer (red) wavelengths. This is why the sky looks blue, you are seeing scattered blue light. This is also why sunsets are red. Because the sun is close to the horizon, the sun rays pass through more atmosphere than normal to reach your eye. All of the blue light has been scattered out, leaving the red light in a sunset.

[edit] Absorption

Absorption is another important property of the atmosphere. Different molecules absorb different wavelengths of radiation. For example, O2 and O3 absorb almost all wavelengths shorter than 300 nanometers. Water (H2O) absorbs many wavelengths above 700 nm, but this depends on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. When a molecule absorbs a photon, it increases the energy of the molecule. We can think of this as heating the atmosphere, but the atmosphere also cools by emitting radiation, as discussed below.

Rough plot of Earth's atmospheric transmittance (or opacity) to various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light.

When you combine the absorption spectra of the gasses in the atmosphere, you are left with "windows" of low opacity, allowing the transmission of only certain bands of light. The optical window runs from around 300 nm (ultraviolet-C) up into the range humans can see, the visible spectrum (commonly called light), at roughly 400–700 nm and continues to the infrared to around 1100 nm. There are also infrared and radio windows that transmit some infrared and radio waves at longer wavelengths. For example, the radio window runs from about one centimeter to about eleven-meter waves.

[edit] Emission

Emission is the opposite of absorption, it is when an object emits radiation. Objects tend to emit amounts and wavelengths of radiation depending on their "black body" emission curves, therefore hotter objects tend to emit more radiation, with shorter wavelengths. Colder objects emit less radiation, with longer wavelengths. For example, the sun is approximately 6,000 K (5,730 °C; 10,340 °F), its radiation peaks near 500 nm, and is visible to the human eye. The Earth is approximately 290 K (17 °C; 62 °F), so its radiation peaks near 10,000 nm, and is much too long to be visible by humans.

Because of its temperature, the atmosphere emits infrared radiation. For example, on clear nights the Earth's surface cools down faster than on cloudy nights. This is because clouds (H2O) are strong absorbers and emitters of infrared radiation. This is also why it becomes colder at night at higher elevations. The atmosphere acts as a "blanket" to limit the amount of radiation the Earth loses into space.

The greenhouse effect is directly related to this absorption and emission (or "blanket") effect. Some chemicals in the atmosphere absorb and emit infrared radiation, but do not interact with sunlight in the visible spectrum. Common examples of these chemicals are CO2 and H2O. If there are too much of these greenhouse gasses, sunlight heats the Earth's surface, but the gasses block the infrared radiation from exiting back to space. This imbalance causes the Earth to warm, and thus climate change.

[edit] Circulation

An idealised view of three large circulation cells.

Atmospheric circulation is the large-scale movement of air, and the means (with ocean circulation) by which heat is distributed on the surface of the Earth.

The large-scale structure of the atmospheric circulation varies from year to year, but the basic structure remains fairly constant. However, individual weather systems - midlatitude depressions, or tropical convective cells - occur "randomly". It is accepted[who?] that weather cannot be predicted beyond a fairly short limit; perhaps a month in theory, or about ten days in practice (see Chaos theory and Butterfly effect). Nonetheless, the average of these systems (the climate) is stable over longer periods of time[citation needed].

[edit] Evolution of Earth's atmosphere

The history of the Earth's atmosphere prior to one billion years ago is poorly understood; it is an active area of scientific research. The following discussion presents a plausible scenario.

The modern atmosphere is sometimes referred to as Earth's "third atmosphere", in order to distinguish the current chemical composition from previous compositions. The original atmosphere was primarily helium and hydrogen. Heat from the still-molten crust, the sun, and a probably enhanced solar wind, dissipated this atmosphere.

About 4.4 billion years ago, the surface had cooled enough to form a crust. It was heavily populated with volcanoes which released steam, carbon dioxide, and ammonia. This led to the early "second atmosphere", which was primarily carbon dioxide and water vapor, with some nitrogen but virtually no oxygen. This second atmosphere had approximately 100 times as much gas as the current atmosphere, but as it cooled much of the carbon dioxide was dissolved in the seas and precipitated out as carbonates. The later "second atmosphere" contained largely nitrogen and carbon dioxide. However, simulations run at the University of Waterloo and University of Colorado in 2005 suggest that it may have had up to 40% hydrogen.[7] It is generally believed that the greenhouse effect, caused by high levels of carbon dioxide and methane, kept the Earth from freezing.

One of the earliest types of bacteria was the cyanobacteria, which formed into colonies called stromatolites. Fossil evidence indicates that bacteria shaped like these existed approximately 3.3 billion years ago and were the first oxygen-producing evolving phototropic organisms. They were responsible for the initial conversion of the Earth's atmosphere from an anoxic state to an oxic state (that is, from a state without oxygen to a state with oxygen) during the period 2.7 to 2.2 billion years ago. Being the first to carry out oxygenic photosynthesis, they were able to produce oxygen while sequestering carbon dioxide in organic molecules, playing a major role in oxygenating the atmosphere. This is often referred to as the Oxygen Catastrophe. The increase in the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere required time because iron and other elements in the Earth's crust reacted with oxygen, removing it from the atmosphere.

Photosynthesising plants later evolved and continued releasing oxygen and sequestering carbon dioxide. Over time, excess carbon became locked in fossil fuels, sedimentary rocks (notably limestone), and animal shells. As oxygen was released, it reacted with ammonia to release nitrogen. Bacteria also converted ammonia into nitrogen, but most of the nitrogen currently in the atmosphere resulted from sunlight-powered photolysis of ammonia released steadily over the aeons from volcanoes.

As more plants appeared, the levels of oxygen increased significantly, while carbon dioxide levels dropped. At first the oxygen combined with various elements, but eventually oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere, contributing to Cambrian explosion and further evolution. With the appearance of an ozone layer (ozone is an allotrope of oxygen) life-forms were better protected from ultraviolet radiation. This oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere is the "third atmosphere". Between 200 and 250 million years ago, up to 35% of the atmosphere was oxygen (as found in bubbles of ancient atmosphere preserved in amber).

This modern atmosphere has a composition which is enforced by oceanic blue-green algae as well as geological processes. O2 does not remain naturally free in an atmosphere but tends to be consumed by inorganic chemical reactions, and by animals, bacteria, and even land plants at night. CO2 tends to be produced by respiration and decomposition and oxidation of organic matter. Due to this, O2 would vanish within a few million years by chemical reactions, and CO2 dissolves in water and would be gone in millennia if not replaced. Both are maintained by biological productivity and geological forces seemingly working hand-in-hand to maintain reasonably steady levels over millions of years.

Currently, anthropogenic greenhouse gases are increasing in the atmosphere and this is a causative factor in global warming.[8]

[edit] Air pollution

Before desulfurization filters were installed, the emissions from this power plant in New Mexico contained excessive amounts of sulfur dioxide.

Air pollution is the human introduction of chemicals, particulate matter, or biological materials that cause harm or discomfort to organisms, into the atmosphere.[9] Stratospheric ozone depletion is believed to be caused by air pollution (chiefly from chlorofluorocarbons).

Worldwide, air pollution is responsible for large numbers of deaths and respiratory disease. Enforced air quality standards, like the Clean Air Act in the United States, have reduced the presence of some pollutants. While major stationary sources are often identified with air pollution, the greatest source of emissions is actually mobile sources, principally the automobile.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ "Earth's Radiation Balance and Oceanic Heat Fluxes". 
  2. ^ "Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Control Run". 
  3. ^ The Mass of the Atmosphere: A Constraint on Global Analyses
  4. ^ Lutgens, Frederick K. and Edward J. Tarbuck (1995) The Atmosphere, Prentice Hall, 6th ed., pp14-17, ISBN 0-13-350612-6
  5. ^ Source for figures: Carbon dioxide, NASA Earth Fact Sheet, (updated 2007.01). Methane, IPCC TAR table 6.1, (updated to 1998). The NASA total was 17 ppmv over 100%, and CO2 was increased here by 15 ppmv. To normalize, N2 should be reduced by about 25 ppmv and O2 by about 7 ppmv.
  6. ^ homosphere—AMS Glossary
  7. ^ "Early Earth atmosphere favorable to life: study". University of Waterloo. 2005-04-07. Retrieved on 2007-07-30. 
  8. ^ "Summary for Policymakers" (PDF). Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2007-02-05. 
  9. ^ Starting from [1] Pollution - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

[edit] External links

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