This cartoon shows some of the gases in the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere. Most of the gas is nitrogen (N2). There is also a lot of oxygen (O2). The cartoon also shows carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapor (H2O), methane (CH4), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO).
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Image courtesy UCAR, modified by Windows to the Universe staff (Randy Russell).

Chemicals in Earth's Atmosphere

Most of the gas in Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. About 4/5ths of the air is nitrogen. What about the other 1/5th? Almost all of it is oxygen, the stuff in the air we need to breathe. There are also very small amounts of a bunch of other chemicals. Some of the chemicals in the air are different in the different layers of Earth's atmosphere.

Have you heard of greenhouse gases? They are kinds of gases that trap the heat from sunlight in our atmosphere. Earth would be very cold if we didn't have any greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide and methane are two very important greenhouse gases.

Some chemicals move in cycles between the atmosphere, living creatures, and the oceans. The Carbon Cycle and the Nitrogen Cycles are two important cycles that change the chemistry of the atmosphere.

Some of the chemicals in the air come from pollution. When we burn coal in a factory or gasoline in our cars, we make air pollution. Coal and oil have sulfur in them. When they burn, they make chemicals called sulfur oxides. These can turn into sulfuric acid when they mix with water droplets in the air. These droplets of acid can fall to the ground as acid rain. Cars and trucks also give off chemicals called nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen oxides combine with other chemicals to make smog. They also help make nitric acid, which is another acid in acid rain.

Last modified July 13, 2009 by Randy Russell.

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