Layers of the Atmosphere
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Without our atmosphere, there would be no life on earth. Two gases make up the bulk of the earth's atmosphere: nitrogen (78%), and oxygen (21%). Argon, carbon dioxide and various trace gases make up the remainder.

Scientists divided the atmosphere into four layers according to temperature: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. The temperature drops as we go up through the troposphere, but it rises as we move through the next layer, the stratosphere. The farther away from earth, the thinner the atmosphere gets.

  1. TROPOSPHERE

    This is the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth's surface, extending up to about 10-15 km above the Earth's surface. It contains 75% of the atmosphere's mass. The troposphere is wider at the equator than at the poles. Temperature and pressure drops as you go higher up the troposphere.

    Q: Why is the troposphere wider at the equator than at the poles?

    The Tropopause: At the very top of the troposphere is the tropopause where the temperature reaches a (stable) minimum. Some scientists call the tropopause a "thermal layer" or "cold trap" because this is a point where rising water vapour cannot go higher because it changes into ice and is trapped. If there is no cold trap, Earth would loose all its water!

    Most of what we call weather occurs in the troposphere. The uneven heating of the regions of the troposphere by the Sun causes convection currents and winds. Warm air from Earth's surface rises and cold air above it rushes in to replace it. When warm air reaches the tropopause, it cannot go higher as the air above it (in the stratosphere) is warmer and lighter ... preventing much air convection beyond the tropopause. The tropopause acts like an invisible barrier and is the reason why most clouds form and weather phenomena occur within the troposphere.

    greenhouse effect The Greenhouse Effect: Heat from the Sun warms the Earth's surface but most of it is radiated and sent back into space. Water vapour and carbon dioxide in the troposphere trap some of this heat, preventing it from escaping thus keep the Earth warm. This trapping of heat is called the "greenhouse effect".

    However, if there is too much carbon dioxide in the troposphere then it will trap too much heat. Scientists are afraid that the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide would raise the Earth's surface temperature, bringing significant changes to worldwide weather patterns ... shifting in climatic zones and the melting of the polar ice caps, which could raise the level of the world's oceans.

    Q: Why is the amount of carbon dioxide in the troposphere increasing?


  2. STRATOSPHERE

    ozone layer This layer lies directly above the troposphere and is about 35 km deep. It extends from about 15 to 50 km above the Earth's surface.

    The stratosphere is warmer at the top than the bottom. The lower portion has a nearly constant temperature with height but in the upper portion the temperature increases with altitude because of absorption of sunlight by ozone. This temperature increase with altitude is the opposite of the situation in the troposphere.

    14 October 2012: Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner made an extreme skydive from the edge of space, leaping off a capsule more than 24 miles (39 km) above the Earth ... that's in the stratosphere. At this extreme altitude and low air pressure, a tear or crack in his pressurized suit or helmet would cause instant depressurization and his blood to "boil". The latter is a condition called "ebullism" that could cause gas bubbles to form in bodily fluids; and blood literally boils.

    Q: What is the relationship between atmospheric pressure and boiling point of a liquid?

    The Ozone Layer: The stratosphere contains a thin layer of ozone molecules (with three oxygen atoms) which forms a protective layer shielding life on Earth from the Sunís harmful ultraviolet radiation. But this ozone layer is being depleted, and is getting thinner over Europe, Asia, North American and Antarctica. "Holes" are appearing in the ozone layer.

    Q: Why are there "ozone holes" in the stratosphere?





  3. MESOSPHERE

    Directly above the stratosphere, extending from 50 to 80 km above the Earth's surface, the mesosphere is a cold layer where the temperature generally decreases with increasing altitude. Here in the mesosphere, the atmosphere is very rarefied nevertheless thick enough to slow down meteors hurtling into the atmosphere, where they burn up, leaving fiery trails in the night sky.


  4. THERMOSPHERE

    The thermosphere extends from 80 km above the Earth's surface to outer space. The temperature is hot and may be as high as thousands of degrees as the few molecules that are present in the thermosphere receive extraordinary large amounts of energy from the Sun. However, the thermosphere would actually feel very cold to us because of the probability that these few molecules will hit our skin and transfer enough energy to cause appreciable heat is extremely low.

    The thermosphere corresponds to the heterosphere, a zone where there is no uniform distribution of gases. In other words, the gases are not well-mixed; instead they are stratified that is layered, in accordance to their molecular masses. In contrast, the gases in the homosphere (consisting of the troposphere, stratosphere and mesosphere) are uniformly distributed.

    Q: Why are the gases in the thermosphere stratified?


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