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Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather by Mike Smith tells the story of our storm warning system. See 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/clouds/mammatus.html&edu=high&dev=1">Mammatus
  clouds</a> are pouches of clouds that hang underneath the base of a cloud.
  They are usually seen with <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/clouds/cumulonimbus.html&edu=high&dev=1">cumulonimbus
  clouds</a> that produce very <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm.html&edu=high&dev=1">strong
  storms</a>. This photograph of mammatus clouds was taken on June 21, 2006 in
  Boulder, Colorado, at sunset. Notice how the light from the sun highlights
  the round features of these clouds.<p><small><em>       Courtesy of Roberta Johnson</em></small></p><a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm/tstorm_lightning.html&edu=high&dev=1">Lightning</a>
  is the most spectacular element of a <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/tstorm.html&edu=high&dev=1">thunderstorm</a>.
  A single stroke of lightning can <a
  href="/earth/Atmosphere/temperature.html&edu=high&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=high&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>On November 7, 2013, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda in the Philippines) made landfall, with imated wind speeds of ~315 km/hr - the strongest <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/hurricane/intensity.html&edu=high&dev=1">tropical cyclone</a> to make landfall in recorded history.  As Haiyan moved across the Philippines before reaching Vietnam and China, its <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/wind.html&edu=high&dev=1">winds</a> and <a href="/earth/Atmosphere/hurricane/surge.html&edu=high&dev=1">storm surge</a> left devastation in its wake, leading to massive loss of life, destruction of homes, and hundreds of thousands of displaced inhabitants. <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/09/world/iyw-how-to-help-typhoon-haiyan/index.html">How to Help</a><p><small><em>Image courtesy of COMS-1, SSEC, University of Wisconsin-Madison</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>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>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>

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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