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Earth's Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a mixture of nitrogen (78%), oxygen (21%), and other gases (1%) that surrounds Earth. High above the planet, the atmosphere becomes thinner until it gradually reaches space. It is divided into five layers. Most of the weather and clouds are found in the first layer.

The atmosphere is an important part of what makes Earth livable. It blocks some of the Sun's dangerous rays from reaching Earth. It traps heat, making Earth a comfortable temperature. And the oxygen within our atmosphere is essential for life.

Over the past century, greenhouse gases and other air pollutants released into the atmosphere have been causing big changes like global warming, ozone holes, and acid rain.

<a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm/tstorm_lightning.html&edu=elem">Lightning</a>
  is the most spectacular element of a <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm.html&edu=elem">thunderstorm</a>.
  A single stroke of lightning can <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/temperature.html&edu=elem">heat</a>
  the air around it to 30,000 degrees Celsius (54,000 degrees Fahrenheit)! This
  extreme heating causes the air to expand explosively. The expansion creates a
  shock wave that turns into a booming <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm/lightning_thunder.html&edu=elem">sound
  wave</a>, better known as thunder.<p><small><em> Image Courtesy of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/Carlye Calvin</em></small></p><a href="/earth/Atmosphere/NLC.html&edu=elem">Noctilucent</a>
  clouds are the highest clouds in the sky, but they are not associated with
  weather like the <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/clouds/cloud_types.html&edu=elem">other
  clouds</a> we regularly see in the sky.† Noctilucent clouds form very high in
  the <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/overview.html&edu=elem">atmosphere</a>,
  in the <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/mesosphere.html&edu=elem">mesosphere</a>.†
  They are best seen from Earth at sunset. This image was taken on June 15,
  2007, in Budapest, Hungary.† Normally seen from locations near the <a
  href="/earth/polar/polar.html&edu=elem">poles</a> of
  the Earth, in recent years they have also been seen at much lower-latitude
  locations.<p><small><em> Image Courtesy of NASA/Veres Viktor</em></small></p>An image of Hurricane Sandy taken by the GOES-13 satellite on October 28.  This category 1 <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/hurricane/hurricane.html&edu=elem">hurricane</a> was huge, spanning a horizontal distance of about one-third the US continental landmass.  The storm came onshore in New Jersey, and gradually moved northeast.  The storm disrupted the lives of tens of millions in the eastern US, doing billions of dollars in damage, resulting in over 30 deaths.  Visit the National Hurricane Center's webpage on <a href="http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/">Hurricane Sandy</a> for details.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of NASA</em></small></p>Does Earth science matter?  The power outage experienced by residents in New York City on 10/30/2012 due to Hurricane Sandy demonstrates the interconnectedness of our society, and the power of the Earth system.  Every person should have an understanding of how the Earth system works so they can live better lives, protect those they love, and make wise choices.  Earth science education is critical!<p><small><em>Image courtesy of Hybirdd, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.</em></small></p>Greenlandís <a href="http://www.windows2universe.org/earth/polar/cryosphere_glacier1.html">ice sheet</a> saw a record <a href="http://www.windows2universe.org/headline_universe/olpa/greenland_10dec07.html">melt</a> in July 2012.  Scientists studying this event have found that this melting event was triggered by an influx of unusually warm air and amplified by the presence of a blanket of thin low-level <a href="http://www.windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/cloud.html">clouds</a> which pushed temperatures up above freezing.  For more information see the <a href="http://www.news.wisc.edu/21638">press release</a> from the University of Wisconsin Madison.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of University of Wisconsin-Madison</em></small></p>On May 20, 2013, a massive EF5 <a href="http://www.windows2universe.org/earth/Atmosphere/tornado.html">tornado</a> hit Moore, Oklahoma, devastating communities and lives.  The tornado, on the ground for 40 minutes, took a path through a subdivision of homes, destroying block after block of homes, and hitting two elementary schools just as school was ending as well as a hospital. Hundreds of people were injured, and 24 were killed.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of Ks0stm, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license</em></small></p>

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part by the National Science Foundation and NASA, our Founding Partners (the American Geophysical Union and American Geosciences Institute) as well as through Institutional, Contributing, and Affiliate Partners, individual memberships and generous donors. Thank you for your support! NASA AGU AGI NSF