Composition of the Atmosphere

in Physics

The atmosphere is a complex and ever changing mixture. Its ingredients vary from place to place and from day to day. In addition to a number of gases, it contains quantities of foreign matter such as pollen, dust, bacteria, soot, volcanic ash, spores, and dust from outer space. The composition of the air remains almost constant from sea level up to its highest level, but its density diminishes rapidly with altitude. Six miles up, for example, it is too thin to support respiration, and 12 miles up, there is not enough oxygen to support combustion, except in some specially designed turbine engine powered airplanes. At a point several hundred miles above the earth, some gas particles spray out into space, some are dragged by gravity and fall back into the ocean of air below, while others never return. Physicists disagree as to the boundaries of the outer fringes of the atmosphere. Some think it begins 240 miles above the earth and extends to 400 miles; others place its lower edge at 600 miles and its upper boundary at 6,000 miles.


There are also certain nonconformities at various levels. Between 12 and 30 miles, high solar ultraviolet radiation reacts with oxygen molecules to produce a thin curtain of ozone, a very poisonous gas without which life on earth could not exist. This ozone filters out a portion of the sun’s lethal ultraviolet rays, allowing only enough to come through to give us sunburn, kill bacteria, and prevent rickets. At 50 to 65 miles up, most of the oxygen molecules begin to break down under solar radiation into free atoms, and to form hydroxy ions (OH) from water vapor. Also in this region, all the atoms become ionized.

Studies of the atmosphere have revealed that the temperature does not decrease uniformly with increasing altitude; instead it gets steadily colder up to a height of about 7 miles, where the rate of temperature change slows down abruptly and remains almost constant at −55° Centigrade (218° Kelvin) up to about 20 miles. Then the temperature begins to rise to a peak value of 77° Centigrade (350° Kelvin) at the 55 mile level. Thereafter it climbs steadily, reaching 2,270° Centigrade (2,543° Kelvin) at a height of 250 to 400 miles. From the 50 mile level upward, a man or any other living creature, without the protective cover of the atmosphere, would be broiled on the side facing the sun and frozen on the other.

The atmosphere is divided into concentric layers or levels. Transition through these layers is gradual and without sharply defined boundaries. However, one boundary, the tropopause, exists between the first and second layer. The tropopause is defined as the point in the atmosphere at which the decrease in temperature (with increasing altitude) abruptly ceases. The four atmosphere layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, ionosphere, and the exosphere. The upper portion of the stratosphere is often called the chemosphere or ozonosphere, and the exosphere is also known as the mesosphere.

The troposphere extends from the earth’s surface to about 35,000 ft at middle latitudes, but varies from 28,000 ft at the poles to about 54,000 ft at the equator. The troposphere is characterized by large changes in temperature and humidity and by generally turbulent conditions. Nearly all cloud formations are within the troposphere. Approximately three-fourths of the total weight of the atmosphere is within the troposphere. The stratosphere extends from the upper limits of the troposphere (and the tropopause) to an average altitude of 60 miles.

The ionosphere ranges from the 50 mile level to a level of 300 to 600 miles. Little is known about the characteristics of the ionosphere, but it is thought that many electrical phenomena occur there. Basically, this layer is characterized by the presence of ions and free electrons, and the ionization seems to increase with altitude and in successive layers.

The exosphere (or mesosphere) is the outer layer of the atmosphere. It begins at an altitude of 600 miles and extends to the limits of the atmosphere. In this layer, the temperature is fairly constant at 2,500° Kelvin, and propagation of sound is thought to be impossible due to lack of molecular substance.