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What is the atmosphere?

The atmosphere is the thin veil of gas molecules that separates the Earth from the cold void of space. Its heat trapping ability helps to keep the Earth warm enough for life, and it also protects the Earth from harmful shortwave solar radiation and cosmic rays. This protective layer was initially formed by gases vented during the geologic tumult of the young Earth but was later altered by the work of photosynthesizing organisms of the early biosphere, providing the oxygen we depend upon. The atmosphere is a dynamic body that interacts with all the “spheres” of Earth. The dynamism of the atmosphere can be witnessed every day as it transfers solar heat from the equator toward the poles, creating regular wind patterns such as the trade winds. Locally, we experience this mass movement of air molecules as a gentle breeze or in more rare and extreme instances, as hurricanes or tornados. The atmosphere in motion also transfers water evaporated from the oceans to the continents, providing precipitation critical to sustain terrestrial ecosystems. Without the atmosphere, the Earth would be like a bigger version of the moon – cold and lifeless.

What makes up the atmosphere?

The atmosphere’s principal constituents of nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%) have varied little for millions of years. Within the remaining 1 percent, there are trace gases such as argon and a group of gases known collectively as the greenhouse gases (GHGs), which serve the important role of trapping heat that the Earth receives from the sun and which make the planet hospitable for life.

Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone -- the major GHGs -- have the ability to absorb long-wave radiation, warming the Earth 33 ˚C from otherwise subzero conditions. Air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice reveal how the concentration of carbon dioxide has fluctuated with the ice ages for the last 800,000 years. Over the last 450,000 years, the fluctuation ranges from about 180 parts per million by volume (ppmv) during the depth of an ice age to about 280 ppmv during the naturally occurring warm interglacials.

The atmosphere extends out about 120 km (about 75 miles) from the surface of the Earth and is comprised of four major layers—troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. The lowermost layer, the troposphere, contains the majority of the mass of the entire atmosphere (about 80 percent). As you ascend in altitude from sea level, atmospheric pressure drops exponentially. At 8 km, the height of Mount Everest, there is about one-third the amount of oxygen, and at 80 km, there is virtually no oxygen at all.

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How do humans affect the atmosphere?

Ever since humans began to significantly alter the landscape through the development of agriculture after the last ice age about 10,000 years ago, our species has increasingly become an important agent of global-scale change. Extensive combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation are the key factors in the changing concentration of carbon dioxide. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, the combustion of coal, followed by oil and natural gas, has increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 38%, to almost 400 ppmv.

This change in CO2 alters the energy balance of the Earth (the balance of incoming solar energy and outgoing energy radiated to space), and consequently the Earth’s temperature is now about 0.8˚C above pre-industrial temperatures and rising. This human alteration of the atmosphere in turn affects agriculture, human health, coastal communities, and the terrestrial and marine ecosystems of the biosphere.

The Aurora Borealis (Aurora Australis in southern hemisphere) is a fantastic light display of the polar regions revealing the usually invisible collision of particles high in the Earth's atmosphere. Particles of the solar wind originating from the sun are colliding with atoms and molecules of the upper atmosphere mediated by the Earth's magnetosphere. The collisions excite electrons which produce visible light seen as auroras.


Materials: Notebook, paper and pencil or dedicated computer file where you can keep your work.

  1. Pick one or more of the Atmosphere Questions.
  2. Write down or sketch your answers based on your own understanding without looking anything up.
  3. Ask a family member, friend, or teacher the same question(s) and write down or sketch their answers.
  4. What are the common ideas in the answers you've collected? Write or sketch the common themes/ideas.
  5. Come up with your own strategy for digging deeper (ask a scientist, check out university and government agency websites like NASA and NOAA, go to the library, design and conduct an experiment, etc.) until you're satisfied the answer makes sense to you.
  6. Summarize what is known and unknown about the subject of the question(s). Also note what evidence there is in supporting what is known and how the evidence was obtained.
  7. Rate the answer you've come up with on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being weak with lots of uncertainty, 10 being perfect.

Earth Systems