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The atmosphere of Earth is the layer of gases, known collectively as air, retained by
Earth's gravity The gravity of Earth, denoted by , is the net force, net acceleration that is imparted to objects due to the combined effect of gravitation (from mass distribution within Earth) and the centrifugal force (from the Earth's rotation). It is a Eucli ...
that surrounds the planet and forms its planetary
atmosphere An atmosphere () is a layer of gas or layers of gases that envelop a planet, and is held in place by the gravity of the planetary body. A planet retains an atmosphere when the gravity is great and the temperature of the atmosphere is low. A s ...
. The atmosphere of Earth protects
life Life is a quality that distinguishes matter that has biological processes, such as Cell signaling, signaling and self-sustaining processes, from that which does not, and is defined by the capacity for Cell growth, growth, reaction to Stimu ...
on Earth by creating
pressure Pressure (symbol: ''p'' or ''P'') is the force applied perpendicular to the surface of an object per unit area over which that force is distributed. Gauge pressure (also spelled ''gage'' pressure)The preferred spelling varies by country and e ...
allowing for liquid water to exist on the Earth's surface, absorbing
ultraviolet Ultraviolet (UV) is a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelength from 10 nanometer, nm (with a corresponding frequency around 30 Hertz, PHz) to 400 nm (750 Hertz, THz), shorter than that of visible light, but longer than ...
solar radiation Solar irradiance is the power (physics), power per unit area (surface power density) received from the Sun in the form of electromagnetic radiation in the wavelength range of the measuring instrument. Solar irradiance is measured in watts per ...
, warming the surface through heat retention (
greenhouse effect The greenhouse effect is a process that occurs when energy from a planet's host star goes through the planet's atmosphere and heats the planet's surface, but greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent some of the heat from returning directly ...
), and reducing temperature extremes between
day A day is the time rotation period, period of a full Earth's rotation, rotation of the Earth with respect to the Sun. On average, this is 24 hours, 1440 minutes, or 86,400 seconds. In everyday life, the word "day" often refers to a solar time, s ...
and
night Night (also described as night time, unconventionally spelled as "nite") is the period of :wikt:ambient, ambient darkness from sunset to sunrise during each 24-hour day, when the Sun is below the horizon. The exact time when night begins and e ...
(the
diurnal temperature variation In meteorology, diurnal temperature variation is the variation between a high air temperature and a low temperature that occurs during the same day. Temperature lag Temperature lag is an important factor in diurnal temperature variation: peak da ...
). By mole fraction (i.e., by number of molecules), dry air contains 78.08%
nitrogen Nitrogen is the chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol N and atomic number 7. Nitrogen is a nonmetal and the lightest member of pnictogen, group 15 of the periodic table, often called the pnictogens. It is a common element in the ...
, 20.95%
oxygen Oxygen is the chemical element with the chemical symbol, symbol O and atomic number 8. It is a member of the chalcogen Group (periodic table), group in the periodic table, a highly Chemical reaction, reactive nonmetal, and an oxidizing a ...
, 0.93%
argon Argon is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Ar and atomic number 18. It is in group 18 of the periodic table and is a noble gas. Argon is the third-most abundant gas in Earth's atmosphere, at 0.934% (9340 Parts-per notatio ...
, 0.04%
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide ( chemical formula ) is a chemical compound made up of molecules that each have one carbon Carbon () is a chemical element with the chemical symbol, symbol C and atomic number 6. It is nonmetallic and tetravalence, tetraval ...
, and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of
water vapor (99.9839 °C) , - , Boiling point , , - , specific gas constant , 461.5 Joule, J/(Kilogram, kg·K) , - , Heat of vaporization , 2.27 Megajoule, MJ/kg , - , Heat capacity , 1.864 Kilojoule, kJ/(kg·K) Water vapor, water vapour or ...
, on average around 1% at sea level, and 0.4% over the entire atmosphere. Air composition, temperature, and atmospheric pressure vary with altitude. Within the atmosphere, air suitable for use in
photosynthesis Photosynthesis is a process used by plants and other organisms to Energy transformation, convert light energy into chemical energy that, through cellular respiration, can later be released to fuel the organism's activities. Some of this chemica ...
by terrestrial plants and
breathing Breathing (or ventilation) is the process of moving air into and from the lungs to facilitate gas exchange with the Milieu intérieur, internal environment, mostly to flush out carbon dioxide and bring in oxygen. All Aerobic respiration, aer ...
of
terrestrial animal Terrestrial animals are animals that live predominantly or entirely on land (e.g. cats, dogs, ants, spiders), as compared with aquatic animals, which live predominantly or entirely in the water (e.g. fish, lobsters, octopuses), and amphibians, w ...
s is found only in Earth's
troposphere The troposphere is the first and lowest layer of the Earth's atmosphere, atmosphere of the Earth, and contains 75% of the total mass of the Atmosphere, planetary atmosphere, 99% of the total mass of water vapor, water vapour and aerosols, and is ...
. Earth's early atmosphere consisted of gases in the
solar nebula The formation of the Solar System began about 4.6 bya, billion years ago with the gravitational collapse of a small part of a giant molecular cloud. Most of the collapsing mass collected in the center, forming the Sun, while the rest flattened in ...
, primarily hydrogen. The atmosphere changed significantly over time, affected by many factors such as volcanism,
life Life is a quality that distinguishes matter that has biological processes, such as Cell signaling, signaling and self-sustaining processes, from that which does not, and is defined by the capacity for Cell growth, growth, reaction to Stimu ...
, and
weathering Weathering is the deterioration of Rock (geology), rocks, soils and minerals as well as wood and artificial materials through contact with water, atmospheric gases, and biological organisms. Weathering occurs ''in situ'' (on site, with little o ...
. Recently, human activity has also contributed to atmospheric changes, such as
global warming In common usage, climate change describes global warming—the ongoing increase in global average temperature—and its effects on Earth's climate system. Climate variability and change, Climate change in a broader sense also includes ...
, ozone depletion and acid deposition. The atmosphere has a mass of about 5.15 kg, three quarters of which is within about of the surface. The atmosphere becomes thinner with increasing altitude, with no definite boundary between the atmosphere and
outer space Outer space, commonly shortened to space, is the expanse that exists beyond Earth and Earth atmosphere, its atmosphere and between astronomical object, celestial bodies. Outer space is not completely empty—it is a Ultra-high vacuum, near-per ...
. The Kármán line, at or 1.57% of Earth's radius, is often used as the border between the atmosphere and outer space. Atmospheric effects become noticeable during
atmospheric reentry Atmospheric entry is the movement of an object from outer space into and through the gases of an atmosphere of a planet, dwarf planet, or natural satellite. There are two main types of atmospheric entry: ''uncontrolled entry'', such as the entr ...
of spacecraft at an altitude of around . Several layers can be distinguished in the atmosphere, based on characteristics such as temperature and composition. The study of Earth's atmosphere and its processes is called atmospheric science (aerology), and includes multiple subfields, such as climatology and atmospheric physics. Early pioneers in the field include Léon Teisserenc de Bort and Richard Assmann. The study of historic atmosphere is called
paleoclimatology Paleoclimatology (American and British English spelling differences, British spelling, palaeoclimatology) is the study of climates for which direct measurements were not taken. As instrumental records only span a tiny part of Earth's history, the ...
.


Composition

The three major constituents of Earth's atmosphere are
nitrogen Nitrogen is the chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol N and atomic number 7. Nitrogen is a nonmetal and the lightest member of pnictogen, group 15 of the periodic table, often called the pnictogens. It is a common element in the ...
,
oxygen Oxygen is the chemical element with the chemical symbol, symbol O and atomic number 8. It is a member of the chalcogen Group (periodic table), group in the periodic table, a highly Chemical reaction, reactive nonmetal, and an oxidizing a ...
, and
argon Argon is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Ar and atomic number 18. It is in group 18 of the periodic table and is a noble gas. Argon is the third-most abundant gas in Earth's atmosphere, at 0.934% (9340 Parts-per notatio ...
. Water vapor accounts for roughly 0.25% of the atmosphere by mass. The concentration of water vapor (a greenhouse gas) varies significantly from around 10 ppm by mole fraction in the coldest portions of the atmosphere to as much as 5% by mole fraction in hot, humid air masses, and concentrations of other atmospheric gases are typically quoted in terms of dry air (without water vapor).Wallace, John M. and Peter V. Hobbs
''Atmospheric Science: An Introductory Survey''
. Elsevier. Second Edition, 2006. . Chapter 1
The remaining gases are often referred to as trace gases, among which are other
greenhouse gas A greenhouse gas (GHG or GhG) is a gas that Absorption (electromagnetic radiation), absorbs and Emission (electromagnetic radiation), emits radiant energy within the thermal infrared range, causing the greenhouse effect. The primary greenhouse ...
es, principally carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Besides argon, already mentioned, other
noble gas The noble gases (historically also the inert gases; sometimes referred to as aerogens) make up a class of chemical elements with similar properties; under Standard conditions for temperature and pressure, standard conditions, they are all odorle ...
es, neon, helium, krypton, and xenon are also present. Filtered air includes trace amounts of many other
chemical compound A chemical compound is a chemical substance composed of many identical molecules (or molecular entity, molecular entities) containing atoms from more than one chemical element held together by chemical bonds. A homonuclear molecule, molecule co ...
s. Many substances of natural origin may be present in locally and seasonally variable small amounts as
aerosol An aerosol is a suspension (chemistry), suspension of fine solid particles or liquid Drop (liquid), droplets in air or another gas. Aerosols can be natural or Human impact on the environment, anthropogenic. Examples of natural aerosols are fog o ...
s in an unfiltered air sample, including
dust Dust is made of fine particles of solid matter. On Earth, it generally consists of particles in the atmosphere that come from various sources such as soil lifted by wind (an aeolian process), volcanic eruptions, and pollution. Dust in ho ...
of mineral and organic composition,
pollen Pollen is a powdery substance produced by Spermatophyte, seed plants. It consists of pollen grains (highly reduced microgametophytes), which produce male gametes (sperm cells). Pollen grains have a hard coat made of sporopollenin that protects ...
and spores, sea spray, and volcanic ash. Various industrial
pollutant A pollutant or novel entity is a substance or energy introduced into the environment that has undesired effects, or adversely affects the usefulness of a resource. These can be both naturally forming (i.e. minerals or extracted compounds like Ex ...
s also may be present as gases or aerosols, such as
chlorine Chlorine is a chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol Cl and atomic number 17. The second-lightest of the halogens, it appears between fluorine and bromine in the periodic table and its properties are mostly intermediate betwee ...
(elemental or in compounds),
fluorine Fluorine is a chemical element A chemical element is a species of atoms that have a given number of protons in their atomic nucleus, nuclei, including the pure Chemical substance, substance consisting only of that species. Unlike chemical c ...
compounds and elemental mercury vapor. Sulfur compounds such as
hydrogen sulfide Hydrogen sulfide is a chemical compound with the chemical formula, formula . It is a colorless Chalcogen hydride, chalcogen-hydride gas, and is poisonous, corrosive, and flammable, with trace amounts in ambient atmosphere having a characteristic ...
and
sulfur dioxide Sulfur dioxide ( IUPAC-recommended spelling) or sulphur dioxide (traditional Commonwealth English) is the chemical compound with the formula . It is a toxic gas responsible for the odor of burnt matches. It is released naturally by volcani ...
(SO2) may be derived from natural sources or from industrial air pollution. The average
molecular weight A molecule is a group of two or more atoms held together by attractive forces known as chemical bonds; depending on context, the term may or may not include ions which satisfy this criterion. In quantum physics, organic chemistry, and bioche ...
of dry air, which can be used to calculate densities or to convert between mole fraction and mass fraction, is about 28.946Detlev Möller: ''Luft: Chemie, Physik, Biologie, Reinhaltung, Recht.'' Walter de Gruyter, 2003, , S. 173
(View in Google Books)
or 28.96 g/mol. This is decreased when the air is humid. The relative concentration of gases remains constant until about .


Stratification

In general, air pressure and density decrease with altitude in the atmosphere. However, the temperature has a more complicated profile with altitude, and may remain relatively constant or even increase with altitude in some regions (see the
temperature Temperature is a physical quantity that expresses quantitatively the perceptions of hotness and coldness. Temperature is measurement, measured with a thermometer. Thermometers are calibrated in various Conversion of units of temperature, temp ...
section, below). Because the general pattern of the temperature/altitude profile, or
lapse rate The lapse rate is the rate at which an atmospheric variable, normally temperature Temperature is a physical quantity that expresses quantitatively the perceptions of hotness and coldness. Temperature is measurement, measured with a thermome ...
, is constant and measurable by means of instrumented balloon soundings, the temperature behavior provides a useful metric to distinguish atmospheric layers. In this way, Earth's atmosphere can be divided (called atmospheric stratification) into five main layers: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and exosphere. The altitudes of the five layers are as follows: * Exosphere: 700 to 10,000 km (440 to 6,200 miles) * Thermosphere: 80 to 700 km (50 to 440 miles) * Mesosphere: 50 to 80 km (31 to 50 miles) * Stratosphere: 12 to 50 km (7 to 31 miles) * Troposphere: 0 to 12 km (0 to 7 miles)


Exosphere

The exosphere is the outermost layer of Earth's atmosphere (i.e. the upper limit of the atmosphere). It extends from the thermopause, at the top of the thermosphere at an altitude of about 700 km above sea level, to about 10,000 km (6,200 mi; 33,000,000 ft), where it merges into the solar wind. This layer is mainly composed of extremely low densities of hydrogen, helium and several heavier molecules including nitrogen, oxygen and carbon dioxide closer to the exobase. The atoms and molecules are so far apart that they can travel hundreds of kilometers without colliding with one another. Thus, the exosphere no longer behaves like a gas, and the particles constantly escape into space. These free-moving particles follow ballistic trajectories and may migrate in and out of the magnetosphere or the solar wind. The exosphere is too far above Earth for meteorological phenomena to be possible. However, Earth's auroras—the aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights)—sometimes occur in the lower part of the exosphere, where they overlap into the thermosphere. The exosphere contains many of the artificial satellites that
orbit In celestial mechanics, an orbit is the curved trajectory of an physical body, object such as the trajectory of a planet around a star, or of a natural satellite around a planet, or of an satellite, artificial satellite around an object or pos ...
Earth.


Thermosphere

The thermosphere is the second-highest layer of Earth's atmosphere. It extends from the mesopause (which separates it from the mesosphere) at an altitude of about up to the thermopause at an altitude range of . The height of the thermopause varies considerably due to changes in solar activity. Because the thermopause lies at the lower boundary of the exosphere, it is also referred to as the exobase. The lower part of the thermosphere, from above Earth's surface, contains the ionosphere. The temperature of the thermosphere gradually increases with height and can rise as high as , though the gas molecules are so far apart that its temperature in the usual sense is not very meaningful. The air is so rarefied that an individual molecule (of
oxygen Oxygen is the chemical element with the chemical symbol, symbol O and atomic number 8. It is a member of the chalcogen Group (periodic table), group in the periodic table, a highly Chemical reaction, reactive nonmetal, and an oxidizing a ...
, for example) travels an average of between collisions with other molecules. Although the thermosphere has a high proportion of molecules with high energy, it would not feel hot to a human in direct contact, because its density is too low to conduct a significant amount of energy to or from the skin. This layer is completely cloudless and free of water vapor. However, non-hydrometeorological phenomena such as the aurora borealis and aurora australis are occasionally seen in the thermosphere. The
International Space Station The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest Modular design, modular space station currently in low Earth orbit. It is a multinational collaborative project involving five participating space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos ( ...
orbits in this layer, between . It is this layer where many of the satellites orbiting the earth are present.


Mesosphere

The mesosphere is the third highest layer of Earth's atmosphere, occupying the region above the stratosphere and below the thermosphere. It extends from the stratopause at an altitude of about to the mesopause at above sea level. Temperatures drop with increasing altitude to the mesopause that marks the top of this middle layer of the atmosphere. It is the coldest place on Earth and has an average temperature around . Just below the mesopause, the air is so cold that even the very scarce water vapor at this altitude can sublimate into polar-mesospheric noctilucent clouds of ice particles. These are the highest clouds in the atmosphere and may be visible to the naked eye if sunlight reflects off them about an hour or two after sunset or similarly before sunrise. They are most readily visible when the Sun is around 4 to 16 degrees below the horizon. Lightning-induced discharges known as transient luminous events (TLEs) occasionally form in the mesosphere above tropospheric thunderclouds. The mesosphere is also the layer where most
meteor A meteoroid () is a small rocky or metallic body in outer space. Meteoroids are defined as objects significantly smaller than asteroids, ranging in size from grains to objects up to a meter wide. Objects smaller than this are classified as micr ...
s burn up upon atmospheric entrance. It is too high above Earth to be accessible to jet-powered aircraft and balloons, and too low to permit orbital spacecraft. The mesosphere is mainly accessed by sounding rockets and rocket-powered aircraft.


Stratosphere

The stratosphere is the second-lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere. It lies above the troposphere and is separated from it by the tropopause. This layer extends from the top of the troposphere at roughly above Earth's surface to the stratopause at an altitude of about . The atmospheric pressure at the top of the stratosphere is roughly 1/1000 the pressure at sea level. It contains the
ozone layer The ozone layer or ozone shield is a region of Earth's stratosphere that absorbs most of the Sun's ultraviolet radiation. It contains a high concentration of ozone (O3) in relation to other parts of the atmosphere, although still small in relat ...
, which is the part of Earth's atmosphere that contains relatively high concentrations of that gas. The stratosphere defines a layer in which temperatures rise with increasing altitude. This rise in temperature is caused by the absorption of ultraviolet radiation (UV) radiation from the Sun by the ozone layer, which restricts turbulence and mixing. Although the temperature may be at the tropopause, the top of the stratosphere is much warmer, and may be near 0 °C. The stratospheric temperature profile creates very stable atmospheric conditions, so the stratosphere lacks the weather-producing air turbulence that is so prevalent in the troposphere. Consequently, the stratosphere is almost completely free of clouds and other forms of weather. However, polar stratospheric or nacreous clouds are occasionally seen in the lower part of this layer of the atmosphere where the air is coldest. The stratosphere is the highest layer that can be accessed by jet-powered aircraft.


Troposphere

The troposphere is the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere. It extends from Earth's surface to an average height of about , although this
altitude Altitude or height (also sometimes known as depth) is a distance measurement, usually in the vertical or "up" direction, between a reference datum and a point or object. The exact definition and reference datum varies according to the context ...
varies from about at the geographic poles to at the
Equator The equator is a circle of latitude, about in circumference, that divides Earth into the Northern Hemisphere, Northern and Southern Hemisphere, Southern hemispheres. It is an imaginary line located at 0 degrees latitude, halfway between the ...
, with some variation due to weather. The troposphere is bounded above by the tropopause, a boundary marked in most places by a temperature inversion (i.e. a layer of relatively warm air above a colder one), and in others by a zone that is isothermal with height. Although variations do occur, the temperature usually declines with increasing altitude in the troposphere because the troposphere is mostly heated through energy transfer from the surface. Thus, the lowest part of the troposphere (i.e. Earth's surface) is typically the warmest section of the troposphere. This promotes vertical mixing (hence, the origin of its name in the Greek word τρόπος, ''tropos'', meaning "turn"). The troposphere contains roughly 80% of the
mass Mass is an Intrinsic and extrinsic properties, intrinsic property of a body. It was traditionally believed to be related to the physical quantity, quantity of matter in a Physical object, physical body, until the discovery of the atom and par ...
of Earth's atmosphere. The troposphere is denser than all its overlying layers because a larger atmospheric weight sits on top of the troposphere and causes it to be most severely compressed. Fifty percent of the total mass of the atmosphere is located in the lower of the troposphere. Nearly all atmospheric water vapor or moisture is found in the troposphere, so it is the layer where most of Earth's weather takes place. It has basically all the weather-associated cloud genus types generated by active wind circulation, although very tall cumulonimbus thunder clouds can penetrate the tropopause from below and rise into the lower part of the stratosphere. Most conventional
aviation Aviation includes the activities surrounding mechanical flight and the aircraft industry. ''Aircraft'' includes airplane, fixed-wing and helicopter, rotary-wing types, morphable wings, wing-less lifting bodies, as well as aerostat, lighter- ...
activity takes place in the troposphere, and it is the only layer that can be accessed by propeller-driven aircraft.


Other layers

Within the five principal layers above, which are largely determined by temperature, several secondary layers may be distinguished by other properties: * The
ozone layer The ozone layer or ozone shield is a region of Earth's stratosphere that absorbs most of the Sun's ultraviolet radiation. It contains a high concentration of ozone (O3) in relation to other parts of the atmosphere, although still small in relat ...
is contained within the stratosphere. In this layer
ozone Ozone (), or trioxygen, is an inorganic molecule with the chemical formula . It is a pale blue gas with a distinctively pungent smell. It is an allotrope of oxygen that is much less stable than the diatomic Allotropy, allotrope , breaking down i ...
concentrations are about 2 to 8 parts per million, which is much higher than in the lower atmosphere but still very small compared to the main components of the atmosphere. It is mainly located in the lower portion of the stratosphere from about , though the thickness varies seasonally and geographically. About 90% of the ozone in Earth's atmosphere is contained in the stratosphere. * The ionosphere is a region of the atmosphere that is ionized by solar radiation. It is responsible for auroras. During daytime hours, it stretches from and includes the mesosphere, thermosphere, and parts of the exosphere. However, ionization in the mesosphere largely ceases during the night, so auroras are normally seen only in the thermosphere and lower exosphere. The ionosphere forms the inner edge of the magnetosphere. It has practical importance because it influences, for example, radio propagation on Earth. * The homosphere and heterosphere are defined by whether the atmospheric gases are well mixed. The surface-based homosphere includes the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and the lowest part of the thermosphere, where the chemical composition of the atmosphere does not depend on molecular weight because the gases are mixed by turbulence. This relatively homogeneous layer ends at the ''
turbopause The turbopause, also known as the homopause, marks the altitude in an atmosphere below which turbulence, turbulent mixing dominates. Mathematically, it is defined as the point where the coefficient of Eddy diffusion is equal to the coefficient of m ...
'' found at about , the very edge of space itself as accepted by the FAI, which places it about above the mesopause. :Above this altitude lies the heterosphere, which includes the exosphere and most of the thermosphere. Here, the chemical composition varies with altitude. This is because the distance that particles can move without colliding with one another is large compared with the size of motions that cause mixing. This allows the gases to stratify by molecular weight, with the heavier ones, such as oxygen and nitrogen, present only near the bottom of the heterosphere. The upper part of the heterosphere is composed almost completely of hydrogen, the lightest element. * The planetary boundary layer is the part of the troposphere that is closest to Earth's surface and is directly affected by it, mainly through turbulent diffusion. During the day the planetary boundary layer usually is well-mixed, whereas at night it becomes stably stratified with weak or intermittent mixing. The depth of the planetary boundary layer ranges from as little as about on clear, calm nights to or more during the afternoon in dry regions. The average temperature of the atmosphere at Earth's surface is or , depending on the reference.


Physical properties


Pressure and thickness

The average atmospheric pressure at sea level is defined by the International Standard Atmosphere as . This is sometimes referred to as a unit of standard atmospheres (atm). Total atmospheric mass is 5.1480×1018 kg (1.135×1019 lb), about 2.5% less than would be inferred from the average sea level pressure and Earth's area of 51007.2 megahectares, this portion being displaced by Earth's mountainous terrain. Atmospheric pressure is the total weight of the air above unit area at the point where the pressure is measured. Thus air pressure varies with location and weather. If the entire mass of the atmosphere had a uniform density equal to sea level density (about 1.2 kg per m3) from sea level upwards, it would terminate abruptly at an altitude of . Air pressure actually decreases exponentially with altitude, dropping by half every or by a factor of 1/ e (0.368) every , (this is called the scale height) -- for altitudes out to around . However, the atmosphere is more accurately modeled with a customized equation for each layer that takes gradients of temperature, molecular composition, solar radiation and gravity into account. At heights over 100 km, an atmosphere may no longer be well mixed. Then each chemical species has its own scale height. In summary, the mass of Earth's atmosphere is distributed approximately as follows: * 50% is below . * 90% is below . * 99.99997% is below , the Kármán line. By international convention, this marks the beginning of space where human travelers are considered
astronaut An astronaut (from the Ancient Greek (), meaning 'star', and (), meaning 'sailor') is a person trained, equipped, and deployed by a List of human spaceflight programs, human spaceflight program to serve as a commander or crew member aboard ...
s. By comparison, the summit of Mt. Everest is at ; commercial airliners typically cruise between where the lower density and temperature of the air improve fuel economy; weather balloons reach and above; and the highest X-15 flight in 1963 reached . Even above the Kármán line, significant atmospheric effects such as auroras still occur. Meteors begin to glow in this region, though the larger ones may not burn up until they penetrate more deeply. The various layers of Earth's ionosphere, important to HF radio propagation, begin below 100 km and extend beyond 500 km. By comparison, the
International Space Station The International Space Station (ISS) is the largest Modular design, modular space station currently in low Earth orbit. It is a multinational collaborative project involving five participating space agencies: NASA (United States), Roscosmos ( ...
and
Space Shuttle The Space Shuttle is a retired, partially reusable launch system, reusable low Earth orbital spacecraft system operated from 1981 to 2011 by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as part of the Space Shuttle program. I ...
typically orbit at 350–400 km, within the F-layer of the ionosphere where they encounter enough
atmospheric drag In fluid dynamics, drag (sometimes called air resistance, a type of friction, or fluid resistance, another type of friction or fluid friction) is a force acting opposite to the relative motion of any object moving with respect to a surrounding flu ...
to require reboosts every few months, otherwise, orbital decay will occur resulting in a return to Earth. Depending on solar activity, satellites can experience noticeable atmospheric drag at altitudes as high as 700–800 km.


Temperature

The division of the atmosphere into layers mostly by reference to temperature is discussed above. Temperature decreases with altitude starting at sea level, but variations in this trend begin above 11 km, where the temperature stabilizes over a large vertical distance through the rest of the troposphere. In the stratosphere, starting above about 20 km, the temperature increases with height, due to heating within the ozone layer caused by the capture of significant
ultraviolet Ultraviolet (UV) is a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelength from 10 nanometer, nm (with a corresponding frequency around 30 Hertz, PHz) to 400 nm (750 Hertz, THz), shorter than that of visible light, but longer than ...
radiation from the Sun by the dioxygen and ozone gas in this region. Still another region of increasing temperature with altitude occurs at very high altitudes, in the aptly-named
thermosphere The thermosphere is the layer in the Earth's atmosphere directly above the mesosphere and below the exosphere. Within this layer of the atmosphere, ultraviolet radiation causes photoionization/photodissociation of molecules, creating ions; the th ...
above 90 km.


Speed of sound

Because in an ideal gas of constant composition the
speed of sound The speed of sound is the distance travelled per unit of time by a sound wave as it propagates through an elasticity (solid mechanics), elastic medium. At , the speed of sound in air is about , or one kilometre in or one mile in . It depends ...
depends only on temperature and not on pressure or density, the speed of sound in the atmosphere with altitude takes on the form of the complicated temperature profile (see illustration to the right), and does not mirror altitudinal changes in density or pressure.


Density and mass

The density of air at sea level is about 1.2 kg/m3 (1.2 g/L, 0.0012 g/cm3). Density is not measured directly but is calculated from measurements of temperature, pressure and humidity using the equation of state for air (a form of the
ideal gas law The ideal gas law, also called the general gas equation, is the equation of state of a hypothetical ideal gas. It is a good approximation of the behavior of many gases under many conditions, although it has several limitations. It was first s ...
). Atmospheric density decreases as the altitude increases. This variation can be approximately modeled using the barometric formula. More sophisticated models are used to predict the orbital decay of satellites. The average mass of the atmosphere is about 5 quadrillion (5)
tonne The tonne ( or ; symbol: t) is a unit of mass equal to 1000 kilograms. It is a International System of Units#Non-SI units accepted for use with SI, non-SI unit accepted for use with SI. It is also referred to as a metric ton to disting ...
s or 1/1,200,000 the mass of Earth. According to the American
National Center for Atmospheric Research The US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR ) is a US federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) managed by the nonprofit University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and funded by the National Science Foundatio ...
, "The total mean mass of the atmosphere is 5.1480 kg with an annual range due to water vapor of 1.2 or 1.5 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 kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ±0.0003 kg."


Tabulated properties

Table of physical and thermal properties of air at atmospheric pressure:


Optical properties

Solar
radiation In physics, radiation is the emission or transmission of energy in the form of waves or particles through space or through a material medium. This includes: * ''electromagnetic radiation'', such as radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visib ...
(or sunlight) is the energy Earth receives from the Sun. Earth also emits radiation back into space, but at longer wavelengths that humans cannot see. Part of the incoming and emitted radiation is absorbed or reflected by the atmosphere. In May 2017, glints of light, seen as twinkling from an orbiting satellite a million miles away, were found to be reflected light from ice crystals in the atmosphere.


Scattering

When light passes through Earth's atmosphere,
photon A photon () is an elementary particle that is a quantum of the electromagnetic field, including electromagnetic radiation such as light and radio waves, and the force carrier for the electromagnetic force. Photons are Massless particle, massless ...
s 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 cannot 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 Rayleigh scattering ( ), named after the 19th-century British physicist Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt), is the predominantly elastic scattering of light or other electromagnetic radiation by particles much smaller than the wavelength of the ...
, 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's rays pass through more atmosphere than normal before reaching your eye. Much of the blue light has been scattered out, leaving the red light in a sunset.


Absorption

Different molecules absorb different wavelengths of radiation. For example, O2 and O3 absorb almost all radiation with wavelengths shorter than 300
nanometer file:EM Spectrum Properties edit.svg, 330px, Different lengths as in respect to the electromagnetic spectrum, measured by the metre and its derived scales. The nanometre is often used to express dimensions on an atomic scale and mostly in the Mol ...
s. Water (H2O) absorbs at many wavelengths above 700 nm. When a molecule absorbs a photon, it increases the energy of the molecule. This heats the atmosphere, but the atmosphere also cools by emitting radiation, as discussed below. The combined absorption spectra of the gases in the atmosphere leave "windows" of low opacity, allowing the transmission of only certain bands of light. The optical window runs from around 300 nm (
ultraviolet Ultraviolet (UV) is a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelength from 10 nanometer, nm (with a corresponding frequency around 30 Hertz, PHz) to 400 nm (750 Hertz, THz), shorter than that of visible light, but longer than ...
-C) up into the range humans can see, the
visible spectrum The visible spectrum is the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visual perception, visible to the human eye. Electromagnetic radiation in this range of wavelengths is called ''visible light'' or simply light. A typical human eye wil ...
(commonly called light), at roughly 400–700 nm and continues to the
infrared Infrared (IR), sometimes called infrared light, is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) with wavelengths longer than those of Light, visible light. It is therefore invisible to the human eye. IR is generally understood to encompass wavelengths from ...
to around 1100 nm. There are also
infrared Infrared (IR), sometimes called infrared light, is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) with wavelengths longer than those of Light, visible light. It is therefore invisible to the human eye. IR is generally understood to encompass wavelengths from ...
and radio windows that transmit some infrared and
radio waves Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation with the longest wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum, typically with frequencies of 300 gigahertz (GHz) and below. At 300 GHz, the corresponding wavelength is 1 mm (short ...
at longer wavelengths. For example, the radio window runs from about one centimeter to about eleven-meter waves.


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 A black body or blackbody is an idealized physical body that absorbs all incident electromagnetic radiation, regardless of frequency or angle of incidence. The name "black body" is given because it absorbs all colors of light. A 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 , its radiation peaks near 500 nm, and is visible to the human eye. Earth is approximately , so its radiation peaks near 10,000 nm, and is much too long to be visible to humans. Because of its temperature, the atmosphere emits infrared radiation. For example, on clear nights 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
greenhouse effect The greenhouse effect is a process that occurs when energy from a planet's host star goes through the planet's atmosphere and heats the planet's surface, but greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent some of the heat from returning directly ...
is directly related to this absorption and emission effect. Some gases in the atmosphere absorb and emit infrared radiation, but do not interact with sunlight in the visible spectrum. Common examples of these are and H2O.


Refractive index

The
refractive index In optics, the refractive index (or refraction index) of an optical medium is a dimensionless number that gives the indication of the light bending ability of that medium. The refractive index determines how much the path of light is bent, or ...
of air is close to, but just greater than 1. Systematic variations in the refractive index can lead to the bending of light rays over long optical paths. One example is that, under some circumstances, observers onboard ships can see other vessels just over the horizon because light is refracted in the same direction as the
curvature In mathematics, curvature is any of several strongly related concepts in geometry. Intuitively, the curvature is the amount by which a curve deviates from being a straight line, or a Surface (mathematics), surface deviates from being a plane (g ...
of Earth's surface. The refractive index of air depends on temperature, giving rise to refraction effects when the temperature gradient is large. An example of such effects is the mirage.


Circulation

''Atmospheric circulation'' is the large-scale movement of air through the troposphere, and the means (with ocean circulation) by which heat is distributed around Earth. The large-scale structure of the atmospheric circulation varies from year to year, but the basic structure remains fairly constant because it is determined by Earth's rotation rate and the difference in solar radiation between the equator and poles.


Evolution of Earth's atmosphere


Earliest atmosphere

The first atmosphere consisted of gases in the
solar nebula The formation of the Solar System began about 4.6 bya, billion years ago with the gravitational collapse of a small part of a giant molecular cloud. Most of the collapsing mass collected in the center, forming the Sun, while the rest flattened in ...
, primarily
hydrogen Hydrogen is the chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol H and atomic number 1. Hydrogen is the lightest element. At standard temperature and pressure, standard conditions hydrogen is a gas of diatomic molecules having the chemical ...
. There were probably simple hydrides such as those now found in the
gas giant A gas giant is a giant planet composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. Gas giants are also called failed stars because they contain the same basic elements as a star. Jupiter and Saturn are the gas giants of the Solar System. The term "gas giant" ...
s (
Jupiter Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the List of Solar System objects by size, largest in the Solar System. It is a gas giant with a mass more than two and a half times that of all the other planets in the Solar System combined, but ...
and
Saturn Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter. It is a gas giant with an average radius of about nine and a half times that of Earth. It has only one-eighth the average density of Earth; h ...
), notably water vapor,
methane Methane ( , ) is a chemical compound with the chemical formula (one carbon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms). It is a group-14 hydride, the simplest alkane, and the main constituent of natural gas. The relative abundance of methane on Eart ...
and
ammonia Ammonia is an inorganic chemical compound, compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the chemical formula, formula . A Binary compounds of hydrogen, stable binary hydride, and the simplest pnictogen hydride, ammonia is a colourless gas with a dis ...
.


Second atmosphere

Outgassing from volcanism, supplemented by gases produced during the
late heavy bombardment The Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB), or lunar cataclysm, is a hypothesized event thought to have occurred approximately 4.1 to 3.8 billion years (Ga) ago, at a time corresponding to the Neohadean and Eoarchean eras on Earth. According to the hypothe ...
of Earth by huge asteroids, produced the next atmosphere, consisting largely of
nitrogen Nitrogen is the chemical element with the Symbol (chemistry), symbol N and atomic number 7. Nitrogen is a nonmetal and the lightest member of pnictogen, group 15 of the periodic table, often called the pnictogens. It is a common element in the ...
plus
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide ( chemical formula ) is a chemical compound made up of molecules that each have one carbon Carbon () is a chemical element with the chemical symbol, symbol C and atomic number 6. It is nonmetallic and tetravalence, tetraval ...
and inert gases. A major part of carbon-dioxide emissions dissolved in water and reacted with metals such as calcium and magnesium during weathering of crustal rocks to form carbonates that were deposited as sediments. Water-related sediments have been found that date from as early as 3.8 billion years ago. About 3.4 billion years ago, nitrogen formed the major part of the then stable "second atmosphere". The influence of life has to be taken into account rather soon in the history of the atmosphere because hints of early life-forms appear as early as 3.5 billion years ago. How Earth at that time maintained a climate warm enough for liquid water and life, if the early Sun put out 30% lower solar radiance than today, is a puzzle known as the " faint young Sun paradox". The geological record however shows a continuous relatively warm surface during the complete early temperature record of Earth – with the exception of one cold glacial phase about 2.4 billion years ago. In the late
Archean The Archean Eon ( , also spelled Archaean or Archæan) is the second of four geologic eons of Earth's history, representing the time from . The Archean was preceded by the Hadean Eon and followed by the Proterozoic. The Earth Ear ...
Eon an oxygen-containing atmosphere began to develop, apparently produced by photosynthesizing
cyanobacteria Cyanobacteria (), also known as Cyanophyta, are a phylum (biology), phylum of gram-negative bacteria that obtain energy via photosynthesis. The name ''cyanobacteria'' refers to their color (), which similarly forms the basis of cyanobacteria's ...
(see Great Oxygenation Event), which have been found as
stromatolite Stromatolites () or stromatoliths () are layered sedimentary formation of rocks, formations (microbialite) that are created mainly by photosynthetic microorganisms such as cyanobacteria, sulfate-reducing microorganism, sulfate-reducing bacteria ...
fossils from 2.7 billion years ago. The early basic carbon isotopy ( isotope ratio proportions) strongly suggests conditions similar to the current, and that the fundamental features of the
carbon cycle The carbon cycle is the biogeochemical cycle by which carbon is exchanged among the biosphere, pedosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and Earth's atmosphere, atmosphere of the Earth. Carbon is the main component of biological compounds as well as ...
became established as early as 4 billion years ago. Ancient sediments in the Gabon dating from between about 2.15 and 2.08 billion years ago provide a record of Earth's dynamic oxygenation evolution. These fluctuations in oxygenation were likely driven by the Lomagundi carbon isotope excursion.


Third atmosphere

The constant re-arrangement of continents by
plate tectonics Plate tectonics (from the la, label=Late Latin, tectonicus, from the grc, τεκτονικός, lit=pertaining to building) is the generally accepted scientific theory that considers the Earth's lithosphere to comprise a number of large te ...
influences the long-term evolution of the atmosphere by transferring carbon dioxide to and from large continental carbonate stores. Free oxygen did not exist in the atmosphere until about 2.4 billion years ago during the Great Oxygenation Event and its appearance is indicated by the end of the banded iron formations. Before this time, any oxygen produced by photosynthesis was consumed by the
oxidation Redox (reduction–oxidation, , ) is a type of chemical reaction in which the oxidation states of substrate (chemistry), substrate change. Oxidation is the loss of Electron, electrons or an increase in the oxidation state, while reduction ...
of reduced materials, notably iron. Free oxygen molecules did not start to accumulate in the atmosphere until the rate of production of oxygen began to exceed the availability of reducing materials that removed oxygen. This point signifies a shift from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing atmosphere. O2 showed major variations until reaching a steady state of more than 15% by the end of the Precambrian. The following time span from 539 million years ago to the present day is the Phanerozoic Eon, during the earliest period of which, the
Cambrian The Cambrian Period ( ; sometimes symbolized C with bar, Ꞓ) was the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, and of the Phanerozoic Eon. The Cambrian lasted 53.4 million years from the end of the preceding Ediacaran Period 538.8 million ...
, oxygen-requiring metazoan life forms began to appear. The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has fluctuated over the last 600 million years, reaching a peak of about 30% around 280 million years ago, significantly higher than today's 21%. Two main processes govern changes in the atmosphere: Plants using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen, and then plants using some oxygen at night by the process of photorespiration while the remaining oxygen is used to break down organic material. Breakdown of
pyrite The mineral pyrite (), or iron pyrite, also known as fool's gold, is an iron sulfide with the chemical formula Iron, FeSulfur, S2 (iron (II) disulfide). Pyrite is the most abundant sulfide mineral. Pyrite's metallic Luster (mineralogy), lust ...
and volcanic eruptions release
sulfur Sulfur (or sulphur in British English British English (BrE, en-GB, or BE) is, according to Oxford Dictionaries, " English as used in Great Britain, as distinct from that used elsewhere". More narrowly, it can refer specifically to the ...
into the atmosphere, which reacts with oxygen and hence reduces its amount in the atmosphere. However, volcanic eruptions also release carbon dioxide, which plants can convert to oxygen. The cause of the variation of the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is not known. Periods with much oxygen in the atmosphere are associated with the rapid development of animals.


Air pollution

is the introduction into the atmosphere of chemicals, particulate matter or biological materials that cause harm or discomfort to organisms. Stratospheric ozone depletion is caused by air pollution, chiefly from
chlorofluorocarbons Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) are fully or partly Halogenation, halogenated Hydrocarbon, hydrocarbons that contain carbon (C), hydrogen (H), chlorine (Cl), and fluorine (F), produced as volatility (chemistry), v ...
and other ozone-depleting substances. Since 1750, human activity has increased the concentrations various greenhouse gases, most importantly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. This increase has caused an observed rise in global temperatures. Global average surface temperatures were higher in the 2011-2020 decade than they were in 1850.


Images from space

On October 19, 2015, NASA started a website containing daily images of the full sunlit side of Earth at https://epic.gsfc.nasa.gov/. The images are taken from the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and show Earth as it rotates during a day.


See also

*
Aerial perspective Aerial perspective, or atmospheric perspective, refers to the effect the atmosphere of Earth, atmosphere has on the appearance of an object as viewed from a distance. As the distance between an object and a viewer increases, the contrast (vision) ...
* Air (classical element) * Air glow * Airshed *
Atmospheric dispersion modeling Atmospheric dispersion modeling is the mathematical simulation of how air pollutants disperse in the ambient atmosphere. It is performed with computer programs that include algorithms to solve the mathematical equations that govern the pollutant ...
* Atmospheric electricity * Atmospheric Radiation Measurement Climate Research Facility (ARM) (in the U.S.) * Atmospheric stratification *
Biosphere The biosphere (from Ancient Greek, Greek βίος ''bíos'' "life" and σφαῖρα ''sphaira'' "sphere"), also known as the ecosphere (from Greek οἶκος ''oîkos'' "environment" and σφαῖρα), is the worldwide sum of all ecosystems. ...
* Climate system ** Earth's energy budget * COSPAR international reference atmosphere (CIRA) *
Environmental impact of aviation Like other emissions resulting from fossil fuel combustion, aircraft engines produce gases, noise, and particulates, raising environmental concerns over their global effects and their effects on local air quality. Jet airliners contribu ...
* Global dimming * Historical temperature record *
Hydrosphere The hydrosphere () is the combined mass of water found on, under, and above the Planetary surface, surface of a planet, minor planet, or natural satellite. Although Earth's hydrosphere has been around for about 4 billion years, it continues to ch ...
* Hypermobility (travel) * Kyoto Protocol * Leaching (agriculture) *
Lithosphere A lithosphere () is the rigid, outermost rocky shell of a terrestrial planet or natural satellite. On Earth, it is composed of the crust (geology), crust and the portion of the upper mantle (geology), mantle that behaves elastically on time sca ...
* Reference atmospheric model


References


External links


Interactive global map of current atmospheric and ocean surface conditions.
{{Authority control Atmospheric thermodynamics Air Environments Articles containing video clips