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Atmospheric Structure

The gaseous area surrounding the planet is divided into several concentric spherical strata (31k jpeg) separated by narrow transition zones.The upper boundary at which gases disperse into space lies at an altitude of approximately 1000 km above sea level.More than 99% of the total atmospheric mass is concentrated in the first 40 km from Earth's surface.

Atmospheric layers are characterized by differences in chemical composition that produce variations in temperature.


The troposphere (14k jpeg) is the atmospheric layer closest to the planet and contains the largest percentage of the mass of the total atmosphere.It is characterized by the density of its air and an average vertical temperature change of 6 degrees Celsius (C) per kilometer.

Temperature and water vapor content in the troposphere decrease rapidly with altitude.Water vapor plays a major role in regulating air temperature because it absorbs solar energy and thermal radiation from the planet's surface.The troposphere contains 99 % of the water vapor in the atmosphere.Water vapor concentrations vary with latitudinal position.They are greatest above the tropics, where they may be as high as 3%, and decrease toward the polar regions.

All weather (23k jpeg) phenomena occur within the troposphere, although turbulence may extend into the lower portion of the stratosphere.Troposphere means "region of mixing" and is so named because of vigorous convective air currents within the layer.

The upper boundary (18k jpeg) of the layer ranges in height from 8 km in high latitudes, to 18 km above the equator.Its height also varies with the seasons; highest in the summer and lowest in the winter. A narrow zone called the tropopause separates the troposphere from the next highest layer called the stratosphere.Air temperature within the tropopause remains constant with increasing altitude.


The stratosphere (22k jpeg) is the second major strata of the atmosphere. It resides between 10 and 50 km above the planet's surface.The air temperature in the stratosphere remains relatively constant up to an altitude of 25 km.Then it increases gradually to 200-220 degrees Kelvin (K) at the lower boundary of the stratopause (~50 km), which is marked by a decrease in temperature.Because the air temperature in the stratosphere increases with altitude, it does not cause convection and has a stabilizing effect on atmospheric conditions in the region.Ozone plays the major role in regulating the thermal regime of the stratosphere, as water vapor content within the layer is very low. Temperature increases with ozone concentration.Solar energy is converted to kinetic energy when ozone molecules absorb ultraviolet radiation, resulting in heating of the stratosphere.

The ozone layer (27k jpeg) is located at an altitude between 20-30 km.Approximately 90 % of the ozone in the atmosphere resides in the stratosphere.Ozone concentration in the this region is about 10 parts per million by volume as compared to approximately 0.04 parts per million by volume in the troposphere.Ozone absorbs the bulk of solar ultraviolet radiation in wavelengths from 290-320 nm.These wavelengths are harmful to life because they can be absorbed by the nucleic acid in cells.Increased penetration of ultraviolet radiation to the planet's surface would damage plant life and have harmful environmental consequences. Appreciably large amounts of solar ultraviolet radiation would result in a host of biological effects, such as a dramatic increase in cancers.

Meteorological conditions strongly affect the distribution of ozone.Most ozone production and destruction occurs in the tropical upper stratosphere, where the largest amounts of ultraviolet radiation are present. Dissociation takes place in lower regions of the stratosphere and occurs at higher latitudes than does production.


The mesosphere, (36k jpeg) a layer extending from approximately 50 km to 80 km, is characterized by decreasing temperatures, which reach 190-180 K at an altitude of 80 km.In this region, concentrations of ozone and water vapor are negligible.Hence the temperature is lower than that of the troposphere or stratosphere.With increasing distance from Earth's surface the chemical composition of air becomes strongly dependent on altitude and the atmosphere becomes enriched with lighter gases.At very high altitudes, the residual gases begin to stratify according to molecular mass, because of gravitational separation.


The thermosphere (39k jpeg) is located above the mesosphere and is separated from it by the mesopause transition layer. The temperature in the thermosphere generally increases with altitude up to 1000-1500 K.This increase in temperature is due to the absorption of intense solar radiation by the limited amount of remaining molecular oxygen. At an altitude of 100-200 km, the major atmospheric components are still nitrogen and oxygen.At this extreme altitude gas molecules are widely separated.


The exosphere (41k jpeg) is the outermost region of the Earth's atmosphere.Within the exosphere, atoms follow ballistic trajectories and rarely undergo collisions because the density of atoms in this region is so low.The exosphere begins at approximately 500 km and extends outward until it transitions with interplanetary space (at roughly 10,000 km).

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Last updated: Apr 06, 2016 05:58 PM ET