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Learn about planets outside our solar system through Exoplanets and Alien Solar Systems by Tahir Yaqoob, Ph.D., a book in our online store book collection.

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&dev=1">Lightning</a>
  is the most spectacular element of a <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm.html&edu=elem&dev=1">thunderstorm</a>.
  A single stroke of lightning can <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/temperature.html&edu=elem&dev=1">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&dev=1">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/clouds/stratocumulus.html&edu=elem&dev=1">Stratocumulus
  clouds</a> belong to the <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/clouds/low_cloud.html&edu=elem&dev=1">Low
  Cloud</a> (surface-2000m) group. These clouds are low, lumpy, and gray.  Only light <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/precipitation.html&edu=elem&dev=1">precipitation</a>,
  generally in the form of <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/precipitation/drizzle.html&edu=elem&dev=1">drizzle</a>,
  occurs with stratocumulus clouds. To distinguish between a stratocumulus and
  an <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/clouds/altocumulus.html&edu=elem&dev=1">altocumulus</a>
  cloud, point your hand toward the cloud. If the cloud is about the size of
  your fist, then it is stratocumulus.<p><small><em>            Courtesy of Carlye Calvin/UCAR</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>How did life evolve on <a href="/earth/earth.html&edu=elem&dev=1">Earth</a> during the <a href="/earth/past/Archean.html&edu=elem&dev=1">Archean</a>, when the <a href="/sun/sun.html&edu=elem&dev=1">Sun</a> was about 25% weaker than today?  The Earth should have been <a href="/earth/polar/cryosphere_glacier1.html&edu=elem&dev=1">glaciated</a>, if <a href="/earth/climate/earth_greenhouse.html&edu=elem&dev=1">greenhouse</a> gas concentration was the same as today.  <a href="http://www.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/news/display/?id=10798">Researchers</a> studying the <a href="/physical_science/physics/atom_particle/isotope.html&edu=elem&dev=1">isotopic</a> signatures of Earth's early atmosphere in <a href="/earth/geology/rocks_intro.html&edu=elem&dev=1">rocks</a> from Northern Australia have ruled out high levels of <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/nitrogen_molecular.html&edu=elem&dev=1">nitrogen</a> as a possible way to increase warming from <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/overview.html&edu=elem&dev=1">atmospheric</a> <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_dioxide.html&edu=elem&dev=1">carbon dioxide</a>.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of Manchester University</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>Anti-crepuscular rays are beams of sunlight that appear to converge on a point opposite the sun. They are similar to crepuscular rays, but are seen opposite the sun in the sky. Anti-crepuscular rays are most frequently visible near sunrise or sunset. This photo of anti-crepuscular rays was taken at sunset in Boulder, Colorado. Crepuscular rays are usually much brighter than anti-crepuscular rays.<p><small><em> Image Courtesy of Carlye Calvin</em></small></p>

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA