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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/NLC.html&edu=high&dev=1">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=high&dev=1">other
  clouds</a> we regularly see in the sky.  Noctilucent clouds form very high in
  the <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/overview.html&edu=high&dev=1">atmosphere</a>,
  in the <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/mesosphere.html&edu=high&dev=1">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=high&dev=1">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>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>How did life evolve on <a href="/earth/earth.html&edu=high&dev=1">Earth</a> during the <a href="/earth/past/Archean.html&edu=high&dev=1">Archean</a>, when the <a href="/sun/sun.html&edu=high&dev=1">Sun</a> was about 25% weaker than today?  The Earth should have been <a href="/earth/polar/cryosphere_glacier1.html&edu=high&dev=1">glaciated</a>, if <a href="/earth/climate/earth_greenhouse.html&edu=high&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=high&dev=1">isotopic</a> signatures of Earth's early atmosphere in <a href="/earth/geology/rocks_intro.html&edu=high&dev=1">rocks</a> from Northern Australia have ruled out high levels of <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/nitrogen_molecular.html&edu=high&dev=1">nitrogen</a> as a possible way to increase warming from <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/overview.html&edu=high&dev=1">atmospheric</a> <a href="/physical_science/chemistry/carbon_dioxide.html&edu=high&dev=1">carbon dioxide</a>.<p><small><em>Image courtesy of Manchester University</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=high&dev=1">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>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><a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/clouds/lenticular.html&edu=high&dev=1">Lenticular
  clouds</a> form on the downwind side of mountains. <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/wind.html&edu=high&dev=1">Wind</a>
  blows most types of clouds across the sky, but lenticular clouds seem to stay
  in one place. Air moves up and over a mountain, and at the point where the
  air goes past the mountaintop the lenticular cloud forms, and then the air <a
  href="/earth/Water/evaporation.html&edu=high&dev=1">evaporates</a>
  on the side farther away from the mountains.  This close up of lenticular
  clouds was taken at sunset on November 20, 2006 in Boulder, Colorado.<p><small><em>       Courtesy of Roberta Johnson</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