Earth's Atmosphere

Earth's Atmosphere

The layered structure of Earth's atmosphere is visible in this sunset view from the International Space Station.
Credit: Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center

Earth's atmosphere is a mixture of gases that surrounds our home planet. Besides providing us with something to breathe, the atmosphere helps make life on Earth possible in several ways. It shields us from most of the harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation coming from the Sun, warms the surface of our planet by about 33° C (59° F) via the greenhouse effect, and largely prevents extreme differences between daytime and nighttime temperatures.

The atmosphere is a mixture of many different gases. Nitrogen and oxygen are by far the most common; dry air is composed of about 78% nitrogen (N2) and about 21% oxygen (O2). Argon, carbon dioxide (CO2), and many other gases are also present in much lower amounts; each makes up less than 1% of the atmosphere's mixture of gases. The atmosphere also includes water vapor. The amount of water vapor present varies a lot, but on average is around 1%. There are also many small particles - solids and liquids - "floating" in the atmosphere. These particles, which scientists call "aerosols", include dust, spores and pollen, salt from sea spray, volcanic ash, smoke, and more.

The atmosphere grows thinner (less dense and lower in pressure) as one moves upward from Earth's surface. It gradually gives way to the vacuum of outer space. There is no precise "top" of the atmosphere. Air becomes so thin at altitudes between 100 and 120 km (62-75 miles) up that for many purposes that range of heights can be considered the boundary between the atmosphere and space. However, there are very thin but measurable traces of atmospheric gases hundreds of kilometers/miles above Earth's surface.

There are several different regions or layers in the atmosphere. Each has characteristic temperatures, pressures, and phenomena. We live in the troposphere, the lowest layer, where most clouds are found and almost all weather occurs. Some jet aircraft fly in the next higher layer, the stratosphere, which contains the jet streams and the ozone layer. Higher still are the mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere.

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