Atmosphere of Earth

The atmosphere of Earth, commonly known as air, is the layer of gases retained by Earth's gravity that surrounds the planet and forms its planetary atmosphere. The atmosphere of Earth protects life on Earth by creating pressure allowing for liquid water to exist on the Earth's surface, absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention (greenhouse effect), and reducing temperature extremes between day and night (the diurnal temperature variation).

NASA photo showing Earth's atmosphere at sunset, with Earth silhouetted
Blue light is scattered more than other wavelengths by the gases in the atmosphere, surrounding Earth in a visibly blue layer when seen from space on board the ISS at an altitude of 335 km (208 mi).[1]
Composition of Earth's atmosphere by molecular count, excluding water vapor. Lower pie represents trace gases that together compose about 0.0434% of the atmosphere (0.0442% at August 2021 concentrations[2][3]). Numbers are mainly from 2000, with CO2 and methane from 2019, and do not represent any single source.[4]

By mole fraction (i.e., by number of molecules), dry air contains 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases.[8] Air also contains a variable amount of water vapor, on average around 1% at sea level, and 0.4% over the entire atmosphere. Air composition, temperature, and atmospheric pressure vary with altitude. Within the atmosphere, air suitable for use in photosynthesis by terrestrial plants and breathing of terrestrial animals is found only in Earth's troposphere.[citation needed]

Earth's early atmosphere consisted of gases in the solar nebula, primarily hydrogen. The atmosphere changed significantly over time, affected by many factors such as volcanism, life, and weathering. Recently, human activity has also contributed to atmospheric changes, such as global warming, ozone depletion and acid deposition.

The atmosphere has a mass of about 5.15×1018 kg,[9] three quarters of which is within about 11 km (6.8 mi; 36,000 ft) of the surface. The atmosphere becomes thinner with increasing altitude, with no definite boundary between the atmosphere and outer space. The Kármán line, at 100 km (62 mi) or 1.57% of Earth's radius, is often used as the border between the atmosphere and outer space. Atmospheric effects become noticeable during atmospheric reentry of spacecraft at an altitude of around 120 km (75 mi). Several layers can be distinguished in the atmosphere, based on characteristics such as temperature and composition.

The study of Earth's atmosphere and its processes is called atmospheric science (aerology), and includes multiple subfields, such as climatology and atmospheric physics. Early pioneers in the field include Léon Teisserenc de Bort and Richard Assmann.[10] The study of historic atmosphere is called paleoclimatology.


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