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atmosphere

The air surrounding the Earth, described as a series of shells or layers of different characteristics. The atmosphere, composed mainly of nitrogen and oxygen with traces of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other gases, acts as a buffer between Earth and the sun. The layers, troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and the exosphere, vary around the globe and in response to seasonal changes.

Troposphere stems from the Greek word tropos, which means turning or mixing. The troposphere is the lowest layer of the Earth's atmosphere, extending to a height of 8-15 km, depending on latitude. This region, constantly in motion, is the most dense layer of the atmosphere and the region that essentially contains all of Earth's weather. Molecules of nitrogen and oxygen compose the bulk of the troposphere.

The tropopause marks the limit of the troposphere and the beginning of the stratosphere. The temperature above the tropopause increases slowly with height up to about 50 km.

The stratosphere and stratopause stretch above the troposphere to a height of 50 km. It is a region of intense interactions among radiative, dynamical, and chemical processes, in which horizontal mixing of gaseous components proceeds much more rapidly that vertical mixing. The stratosphere is warmer than the upper troposphere, primarily because of a stratospheric ozone layer that absorbs solar ultraviolet energy.

The mesosphere, 50 to 80 km above the Earth, has diminished ozone concentration and radiative cooling becomes relatively more important. The temperature begins to decline again (as it does in the troposphere) with altitude. Temperatures in the upper mesosphere fall to -70 degrees to -140 degrees Celsius, depending upon latitude and season. Millions of meteors burn up daily in the mesosphere as a result of collisions with some of the billions of gas particles contained in that layer. The collisions create enough heat to burn the falling objects long before they reach the ground.

The stratosphere and mesosphere are referred to as the middle atmosphere. The mesopause, at an altitude of about 80 km, separates the mesosphere from the thermosphere--the outermost layer of the Earth's atmosphere.

The thermosphere, from the Greek thermo for heat, begins about 80 km above the Earth. At these high altitudes, the residual atmospheric gases sort into strata according to molecular mass. Thermospheric temperatures increase with altitude due to absorption of highly energetic solar radiation by the small amount of residual oxygen still present. Temperatures can rise to 2,000 degrees C. Radiation causes the scattered air particles in this layer to become charged electrically, enabling radio waves to bounce off and be received beyond the horizon. At the exosphere, beginning at 500 to 1,000 km above the Earth's surface, the atmosphere blends into space. The few particles of gas here can reach 4,500 degrees F (2,500 degrees C) during the day.
Source: NASA (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Glossary)