The Atmosphere


Earth’s atmosphere is a thin blanket of gases and tiny particles — together called air. We are most aware of air when it moves and creates wind. All living things need some of the gases in air for life support. Without an atmosphere, Earth would likely be just another lifeless rock.

Earth’s atmosphere, along with the abundant liquid water at Earth’s surface, are the keys to our planet’s unique place in the solar system. Much of what makes Earth exceptional depends on the atmosphere. Let’s consider some of the reasons we are lucky to have an atmosphere.

Without the atmosphere, Earth would look a lot more like the Moon. Atmospheric gases, especially carbon dioxide (CO2) and oxygen (O2), are extremely important for living organisms. How does the atmosphere make life possible? How does life alter the atmosphere?

In photosynthesis plants use CO2 and create O2. Photosynthesis is responsible for nearly all of the oxygen currently found in the atmosphere. By creating oxygen and food, plants have made an environment that is favorable for animals. In respiration, animals use oxygen to convert sugar into food energy they can use. Plants also go through respiration and consume some of the sugars they produce.


As part of the hydrologic cycle, which was detailed in the Earth’s Fresh Water chapter, water spends a lot of time in the atmosphere, mostly as water vapor.All weather takes place in the atmosphere, virtually all of it in the lower atmosphere. Weather describes what the atmosphere is like at a specific time and place, and may include temperature, wind, and precipitation. Weather is the change we experience from day to day. Climate is the long-term average of weather in a particular spot. Although the weather for a particular winter day in Tucson, Arizona, may include snow, the climate of Tucson is generally warm and dry.


Ozone is a molecule composed of three oxygen atoms, (O3). Ozone in the upper atmosphere absorbs high-energy ultraviolet (UV) radiation coming from the Sun. This protects living things on Earth’s surface from the Sun’s most harmful rays. Without ozone for protection, only the simplest life forms would be able to live on Earth.MODERATES EARTH’S TEMPERATURE  
Along with the oceans, the atmosphere keeps Earth’s temperatures within an acceptable range.Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere so they help to moderate global temperatures. Without an atmosphere with greenhouse gases, Earth’s temperatures would be frigid at night and scorching during the day. Important greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor, and ozone.

Atmospheric Gasses


Nitrogen and oxygen together make up 99 percent of the planet’s atmosphere. The rest of the gases are minor components but sometimes are very important. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air. Humidity varies from place to place and season to season. This fact is obvious if you compare a summer day in Atlanta, Georgia, where humidity is high, with a winter day in Phoenix, Arizona, where humidity is low. When the air is very humid, it feels heavy or sticky. Dry air usually feels more comfortable.Where around the globe is mean atmospheric water vapor higher and where is it lower and why? Higher humidity is found around the equatorial regions because air temperatures are higher and warm air can hold more moisture than cooler air. Of course, humidity is lower near the polar regions because air temperature is lower.

Some of what is in the atmosphere is not gas. Particles of dust, soil, fecal matter, metals, salt, smoke, ash, and other solids make up a small percentage of the atmosphere. Particles provide starting points (or nuclei) for water vapor to condense on and form raindrops. Some particles are pollutants, which are discussed in the Human Actions and the Atmosphere chapter.


The atmosphere has different properties at different elevations above sea level, or altitudes. The air density (the number of molecules in a given volume) decreases with increasing altitude. This is why people who climb tall mountains, such as Mt. Everest, have to set up camp at different elevations to let their bodies get used to the decreased air.Why does air density decrease with altitude? Gravity pulls the gas molecules towards Earth’s center. The pull of gravity is stronger closer to the center at sea level. Air is denser at sea level where the gravitational pull is greater.Gases at sea level are also compressed by the weight of the atmosphere above them. The force of the air weighing down over a unit of area is known as its atmospheric pressure. The reason why we are not crushed by this weight is because the molecules inside our bodies are pushing outward to compensate. Atmospheric pressure is felt from all directions, not just from above.

At higher altitudes the atmospheric pressure is lower and the air is less dense than at higher altitudes. If your ears have ever “popped”, you have experienced a change in air pressure. Gas molecules are found inside and outside your ears. When you change altitude quickly, like when an airplane is descending, your inner ear keeps the density of molecules at the original altitude. Eventually the air molecules inside your ear suddenly move through a small tube in your ear to equalize the pressure. This sudden rush of air is felt as a popping sensation.

Although the density of the atmosphere changes with altitude, the composition stays the same with altitude, with one exception. In the ozone layer, at about 20 km to 40 km above the surface, there is a greater concentration of ozone molecules than in other portions of the atmosphere.

Layers of the Atmosphere


The atmosphere is layered, corresponding with how the atmosphere’s temperature changes with altitude. By understanding the way temperature changes with altitude, we can learn a lot about how the atmosphere works. While weather takes place in the lower atmosphere, interesting things, such as the beautiful aurora, happen higher in the atmosphere.

Why does warm air rise? Gas molecules are able to move freely and if they are uncontained, as they are in the atmosphere, they can take up more or less space.

  • When gas molecules are cool, they are sluggish and do not take up as much space. With the same number of molecules in less space, both air density and air pressure are higher.
  • When gas molecules are warm, they move vigorously and take up more space. Air density and air pressure are lower.

Warmer, lighter air is more buoyant than the cooler air above it, so it rises. The cooler air then sinks down, because it is denser than the air beneath it. This is convection, which was described in the Plate Tectonics chapter.

The property that changes most strikingly with altitude is air temperature. Unlike the change in pressure and density, which decrease with altitude, changes in air temperature are not regular. A change in temperature with distance is called a temperature gradient.

The atmosphere is divided into layers based on how the temperature in that layer changes with altitude, the layer’s temperature gradient. The temperature gradient of each layer is different. In some layers, temperature increases with altitude and in others it decreases. The temperature gradient in each layer is determined by the heat source of the layer. Most of the important processes of the atmosphere take place in the lowest two layers: the troposphere and the stratosphere.


The temperature of the troposphere is highest near the surface of the Earth and decreases with altitude. On average, the temperature gradient of the troposphere is 6.5oC per 1,000 m (3.6oF per 1,000 ft.) of altitude. What is the source of heat for the troposphere? Earth’s surface is a major source of heat for the troposphere, although nearly all of that heat comes from the Sun. Rock, soil, and water on Earth absorb the Sun’s light and radiate it back into the atmosphere as heat. The temperature is also higher near the surface because of the greater density of gases.
Notice that in the troposphere warmer air is beneath cooler air. What do you think the consequence of this is? This condition is unstable. The warm air near the surface rises and cool air higher in the troposphere sinks. So air in the troposphere does a lot of mixing. This mixing causes the temperature gradient to vary with time and place. The rising and sinking of air in the troposphere means that all of the planet’s weather takes place in the troposphere.

Sometimes there is a temperature inversion, air temperature in the troposphere increases with altitude and warm air sits over cold air. Inversions are very stable and may last for several days or even weeks. They form:

  • Over land at night or in winter when the ground is cold. The cold ground cools the air that sits above it, making this low layer of air denser than the air above it.
  • Near the coast where cold seawater cools the air above it. When that denser air moves inland, it slides beneath the warmer air over the land.

Since temperature inversions are stable, they often trap pollutants and produce unhealthy air conditions in cities. At the top of the troposphere is a thin layer in which the temperature does not change with height. This means that the cooler, denser air of the troposphere is trapped beneath the warmer, less dense air of the stratosphere. Air from the troposphere and stratosphere rarely mix.


Ash and gas from a large volcanic eruption may burst into the stratosphere, the layer above the troposphere. Once in the stratosphere, it remains suspended there for many years because there is so little mixing between the two layers. Pilots like to fly in the lower portions of the stratosphere because there is little air turbulence.In the stratosphere, temperature increases with altitude. What is the heat source for the stratosphere? The direct heat source for the stratosphere is the Sun. Air in the stratosphere is stable because warmer, less dense air sits over cooler, denser air. As a result, there is little mixing of air within the layer.The ozone layer is found within the stratosphere between 15 to 30 km (9 to 19 miles) altitude. The thickness of the ozone layer varies by the season and also by latitude.

The ozone layer is extremely important because ozone gas in the stratosphere absorbs most of the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Because of this, the ozone layer protects life on Earth. High-energy UV light penetrates cells and damages DNA, leading to cell death (which we know as a bad sunburn). Organisms on Earth are not adapted to heavy UV exposure, which kills or damages them. Without the ozone layer to reflect UVC and UVB radiation, most complex life on Earth would not survive long.

Temperatures in the mesosphere decrease with altitude. Because there are few gas molecules in the mesosphere to absorb the Sun’s radiation, the heat source is the stratosphere below. The mesosphere is extremely cold, especially at its top, about -90 degrees C (-130 degrees F).

The air in the mesosphere has extremely low density: 99.9 percent of the mass of the atmosphere is below the mesosphere. As a result, air pressure is very low. A person traveling through the mesosphere would experience severe burns from ultraviolet light since the ozone layer which provides UV protection is in the stratosphere below. There would be almost no oxygen for breathing. Stranger yet, an unprotected traveler’s blood would boil at normal body temperature because the pressure is so low.


The density of molecules is so low in the thermosphere that one gas molecule can go about 1 km before it collides with another molecule. Since so little energy is transferred, the air feels very cold. Within the thermosphere is the ionosphere. The ionosphere gets its name from the solar radiation that ionizes gas molecules to create a positively charged ion and one or more negatively charged electrons. The freed electrons travel within the ionosphere as electric currents. Because of the free ions, the ionosphere has many interesting characteristics. At night, radio waves bounce off the ionosphere and back to Earth. This is why you can often pick up an AM radio station far from its source at night.The Van Allen radiation belts are two doughnut-shaped zones of highly charged particles that are located beyond the atmosphere in the magnetosphere. The particles originate in solar flares and fly to Earth on the solar wind. Once trapped by Earth’s magnetic field, they follow along the field’s magnetic lines of force. These lines extend from above the equator to the North Pole and also to the South Pole then return to the equator.

When massive solar storms cause the Van Allen belts to become overloaded with particles, the result is the most spectacular feature of the ionosphere — the aurora. The particles spiral along magnetic field lines toward the poles. The charged particles energize oxygen and nitrogen gas molecules, causing them to light up. Each gas emits a particular color of light.

There is no real outer limit to the exosphere, the outermost layer of the atmosphere; the gas molecules finally become so scarce that at some point there are no more. Beyond the atmosphere is the solar wind. The solar wind is made of high-speed particles, mostly protons and electrons, traveling rapidly outward from the Sun.

There is no real outer limit to the exosphere, the outermost layer of the atmosphere; the gas molecules finally become so scarce that at some point there are no more. Beyond the atmosphere is the solar wind. The solar wind is made of high-speed particles, mostly protons and electrons, traveling rapidly outward from the Sun.

This video is very thorough in its discussion of the layers of the atmosphere.

Atmospheric Energy, Temperature, and Heat


Energy travels through space or material. This is obvious when you stand near a fire and feel its warmth or when you pick up the handle of a metal pot even though the handle is not sitting directly on the hot stove. Invisible energy waves can travel through air, glass, and even the vacuum of outer space. These waves have electrical and magnetic properties, so they are called electromagnetic waves. The transfer of energy from one object to another through electromagnetic waves is known as radiation. Different wavelengths of energy create different types of electromagnetic waves.

  • The wavelengths humans can see are known as “visible light.” These wavelengths appear to us as the colors of the rainbow. What objects can you think of that radiate visible light? Two include the Sun and a light bulb.
  • The longest wavelengths of visible light appear red. Infrared wavelengths are longer than visible red. Snakes can see infrared energy. We feel infrared energy as heat.
  • Wavelengths that are shorter than violet are called ultraviolet.

Can you think of some objects that appear to radiate visible light, but actually do not? The moon and the planets do not emit light of their own; they reflect the light of the Sun. Reflection is when light (or another wave) bounces back from a surface. Albedo is a measure of how well a surface reflects light. A surface with high albedo reflects a large percentage of light. A snow field has high albedo.

One important fact to remember is that energy cannot be created or destroyed — it can only be changed from one form to another. This is such a fundamental fact of nature that it is a law: the law of conservation of energy.

In photosynthesis, for example, plants convert solar energy into chemical energy that they can use. They do not create new energy. When energy is transformed, some nearly always becomes heat. Heat transfers between materials easily, from warmer objects to cooler ones. If no more heat is added, eventually all of a material will reach the same temperature.

Temperature is a measure of how fast the atoms in a material are vibrating. High temperature particles vibrate faster than low temperature particles. Rapidly vibrating atoms smash together, which generates heat. As a material cools down, the atoms vibrate more slowly and collide less frequently. As a result, they emit less heat. What is the difference between heat and temperature?

  • Temperature measures how fast a material’s atoms are vibrating.
  • Heat measures the material’s total energy.

Which has higher heat and which has higher temperature: a candle flame or a bathtub full of hot water?

  • The flame has higher temperature, but less heat, because the hot region is very small.
  • The bathtub has lower temperature but contains much more heat because it has many more vibrating atoms. The bathtub has greater total energy.

Heat is taken in or released when an object changes state, or changes from a gas to a liquid, or a liquid to a solid. This heat is called latent heat. When a substance changes state, latent heat is released or absorbed. A substance that is changing its state of matter does not change temperature. All of the energy that is released or absorbed goes toward changing the material’s state.

For example, imagine a pot of boiling water on a stove burner: that water is at 100 degrees C (212 degrees F). If you increase the temperature of the burner, more heat enters the water. The water remains at its boiling temperature, but the additional energy goes into changing the water from liquid to gas. With more heat the water evaporates more rapidly. When water changes from a liquid to a gas it takes in heat. Since evaporation takes in heat, this is called evaporative cooling. Evaporative cooling is an inexpensive way to cool homes in hot, dry areas.

Substances also differ in their specific heat, the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of the material by 1.0 degrees C (1.8 degrees F). Water has a very high specific heat, which means it takes a lot of energy to change the temperature of water. Let’s compare a puddle and asphalt, for example. If you are walking barefoot on a sunny day, which would you rather walk across, the shallow puddle or an asphalt parking lot? Because of its high specific heat, the water stays cooler than the asphalt, even though it receives the same amount of solar radiation.

Energy from the Sun

The earth constantly tries to maintain an energy balance with the atmosphere. Most of the energy that reaches the Earth’s surface comes from the Sun. About 44% of solar radiation is in the visible light wavelengths, but the Sun also emits infrared, ultraviolet, and other wavelengths. When viewed together, all of the wavelengths of visible light appear white. But a prism or water droplets can break the white light into different wavelengths so that separate colors appear.

Of the solar energy that reaches the outer atmosphere, UV wavelengths have the greatest energy. Only about 7 percent of solar radiation is in the UV wavelengths. The three types are:

  • UVC: the highest energy ultraviolet, does not reach the planet’s surface at all.
  • UVB: the second highest energy, is also mostly stopped in the atmosphere.
  • UVA: the lowest energy, travels through the atmosphere to the ground.

The remaining solar radiation is the longest wavelength, infrared. Most objects radiate infrared energy, which we feel as heat. Some of the wavelengths of solar radiation traveling through the atmosphere may be lost because they are absorbed by various gases. Ozone completely removes UVC, most UVB and some UVA from incoming sunlight. Oxygen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor also filter out some wavelengths.



Heat Transfer in the Atmosphere

Heat moves in the atmosphere the same way it moves through the solid Earth (Plate Tectonics chapter) or another medium. What follows is a review of the way heat flows and is transferred, but applied to the atmosphere.

Radiation is the transfer of energy between two objects by electromagnetic waves. Heat radiates from the ground into the lower atmosphere.

In conduction, heat moves from areas of more heat to areas of less heat by direct contact. Warmer molecules vibrate rapidly and collide with other nearby molecules, transferring their energy. In the atmosphere, conduction is more effective at lower altitudes where air density is higher; transfers heat upward to where the molecules are spread further apart or transfers heat laterally from a warmer to a cooler spot, where the molecules are moving less vigorously.

Heat transfer by movement of heated materials is called convection. Heat that radiates from the ground initiates convection cells in the atmosphere.

About half of the solar radiation that strikes the top of the atmosphere is filtered out before it reaches the ground. This energy can be absorbed by atmospheric gases, reflected by clouds, or scattered. Scattering occurs when a light wave strikes a particle and bounces off in some other direction.

About 3% of the energy that strikes the ground is reflected back into the atmosphere. The rest is absorbed by rocks, soil, and water and then radiated back into the air as heat. These infrared wavelengths can only be seen by infrared sensors. Because solar energy continually enters Earth’s atmosphere and ground surface, is the planet getting hotter? The answer is no (although the next section contains an exception) because energy from Earth escapes into space through the top of the atmosphere. If the amount that exits is equal to the amount that comes in, then average global temperature stays the same. This means that the planet’s heat budget is in balance. What happens if more energy comes in than goes out? If more energy goes out than comes in?

To say that the Earth’s heat budget is balanced ignores an important point. The amount of incoming solar energy is different at different latitudes). Where do you think the most solar energy ends up and why? Where does the least solar energy end up and why? The difference in solar energy received at different latitudes drives atmospheric circulation.

Equatorial Regions
Polar Regions
Day Length
Nearly same all year
Night 6 months
Sun Angle
Solar Radiation


The exception to Earth’s temperature being in balance is caused by greenhouse gases. But first the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be explained. Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere by trapping heat. Some of the heat radiation out from the ground is trapped by greenhouse gases in the troposphere. Like a blanket on a sleeping person, greenhouse gases act as insulation for the planet. The warming of the atmosphere because of insulation by greenhouse gases is called the greenhouse effect. Greenhouse gases are the component of the atmosphere that moderate Earth’s temperatures.Greenhouse gases include CO2, H2O, methane, O3, nitrous oxides (NO and NO2), and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). All are a normal part of the atmosphere except CFCs. The table below shows how each greenhouse gas naturally enters the atmosphere.

Greenhouse Gas
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Nitrous oxide
Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC)
Where It Comes From
Respiration, volcanic eruptions, decomposition of plant material; burning of fossil fuels
Decomposition of plant material under some conditions, biochemical reactions in stomachs
Produced by bacteria; burning fossil fuels
Atmospheric processes, chemical reactions resulting from burning fossil fuels
Not naturally occurring; made by humans

Different greenhouse gases have different abilities to trap heat. For example, one methane molecule traps 30 times as much heat as one CO2 molecule. One CFC-12 molecule (a type of CFC) traps 10,600 times as much heat as one CO2. Still, CO2 is a very important greenhouse gas because it is much more abundant in the atmosphere.

Human activity has significantly raised the levels of many of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Methane levels are about 2 1/2 times higher as a result of human activity. Carbon dioxide has increased more than 35%. CFCs have only recently existed.

What do you think happens as atmospheric greenhouse gas levels increase? More greenhouse gases trap more heat and warm the atmosphere. The increase or decrease of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere affect climate and weather the world over.