Composition, Structure and Stratification of the atmosphere


An atmosphere is a layer of gases surrounding a planet or other material body, that is held in place by the gravity of that body. Many of the planets in this solar system have atmospheres, but none that we know of have an atmosphere quite like ours – one that can support life.

The air is a mixture of several gases. The air encompasses the earth from all sides. The air surrounding the Earth is called the atmosphere. The atmosphere is an integral part of our Earth. It is connected with the earth due to the gravitational force of the earth. It helps in stopping the ultra violet rays harmful for the life and maintain the suitable temperature necessary for life. The air is essential for the survival of all forms of life on the earth.

Composition of the atmosphere


The atmosphere is made up of different types of gases, water vapors and dust particles. The composition of the atmosphere is not static. It changes according to the time and place.

  • Nitrogen N2  78%
  • Oxygen O2 20.9%
  • Argon Ar 9.34%
  • Carbon dioxide CO2 3.84 %
  • Neon
  • Helium
  • Methane
  • Krypton
  • Hydrogen
  • Nitrous oxide
  • Xenon
  • Ozone

Water vapor is unique in that its concentration varies from 0-4% of the atmosphere depending on where you are and what time of the day it is.  In the cold, dry artic regions water vapor usually accounts for less than 1% of the atmosphere, while in humid, tropical regions water vapor can account for almost 4% of the atmosphere.  Water vapor content is very important in predicting weather.

Greenhouse gases whose percentages vary daily, seasonally, and annually have physical and chemical properties which make them interact with solar radiation and infrared light (heat) given off from the earth to affect the energy balance of the globe.

The atmosphere also change composition with height and can be divided into two layers. The lower layer is called the homosphere and has the composition we talked about earlier. It’s top is approximately the mesopause.

Above the homosphere lies the heterosphere, a layer in which the gases are stratified into four shells. The lowermost shell is dominated by molecular nitrogen (N2); next, a layer of atomic oxygen (O) is encountered, followed by a layer dominated by helium atoms (He), and finally, a layer consisting of hydrogen atoms (H).

Importance of various components of atmosphere are:-

(i) Oxygen is very important for the living beings.
(ii) Carbon dioxide is very useful for the plants.
(iii) Dust particles present in the atmosphere create suitable conditions for the precipitation.
(iv) The amount of water vapour in the atmosphere goes on changing and directly affects the plants and living beings.
(v) Ozone protects all kinds of life on the earth from the harmful ultra violet rays of the sun.


Structure  and stratification of the atmosphere

Variations of temperature, pressure and density are much larger in vertical directions than in horizontal. This strong vertical variations result in the atmosphere being stratified in layers that have small horizontal variability compare to the variations in the vertical.

The atmosphere can be divided into five layers according to the diversity of temperature and density.
(a) Troposphere :-It is the lowest layer of the atmosphere. The height of this layer is about 18 kms on the equator and 8 kms on the poles. The main reason of higher height at the equator is due to presence of hot convection currents that push the gases upward.
This is the most important layer of the atmosphere because all kinds of weather changes take place only in this layer. Due to these changes development of living world take place on the earth. The air never remains static in this layer. Therefore this layer is called changing sphere or troposphere.
The environmental temperature decreases with increasing height of atmosphere. It decreases at the rate of 1 C at the height of 165 metre. This is called Normal lapse rate.
The upper limit of the troposphere is called tropopause. This is a transitional zone. In this zone characteristics of both the troposphere and ionosphere are found.

(b) Stratosphere :-This layer lies above the troposphere and spread upto the height of 50 kms from the Earth’s surface. Its average extent 40 kms.
The temperature remains almost the same in the lower part of this layer upto the height of 20 kms. After this the temperature increases slowly with the increase in the height. The temperature increases due to the presence of ozone gas in the upper part of this layer.
Weather related incidents do not take place in this layer. The air blows horizontally here. Therefore this layer is considered ideal for flying of aircrafts.

(c) Mesosphere :-It spreads above the stratosphere upto the height of 80 kms. from the surface of the earth. It’s extent is 30 kms. Temperature goes on decreasing and drops upto – 100 C.

(d) Ionosphere :-The ionosphere lies from about 80-400 km in height and is electrically charged as short wave solar radiation ionizes the gas molecules. The electrical structure of the atmosphere is not uniform and is arranged into three layers, D, E, and F. Since the production of charged particles requires solar radiation, the thickness of each layer, particularly the D and E layers, changes from night to day. The layers weaken and disappear at night and reappear during the day. The F layer is present during both day and night. This change in height of the various electrically charged layers doesn’t effect the weather, but does effect radio signals.

The auroras also take place in the ionosphere since this is the electrically charged layer. The aurora borealis (northern lights) and aurora australis (southern lights) is closely correlated to solar flare activity.

(e) Exosphere:-This is the last layer of the atmosphere located above ionosphere and extends to beyond 400 km above the earth.  Gases are very sparse in this sphere due to the lack of gravitational force. Therefore, the density of air is very less here.

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