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The atmosphere, the gaseous layer that surrounds the earth, formed over four billion years ago......

The atmosphere


The atmosphere , the gaseous layer that surrounds the earth, formed over four billion years ago. During the evolution of the solid earth, volcanic eruptions released gases into the developing atmosphere. Assuming the outgasing was similar to that of modern volcanoes, the gases released included: water vapor (H2O), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrochloric acid (HCl), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), nitrogen (N2) and sulfur gases. The atmosphere was reducing because there was no free oxygen. Most of the hydrogen and helium that outgassed would have eventually escaped into outer space due to the inability of the earth's gravity to hold on to their small masses. There may have also been significant contributions of volatiles from the massive meteoritic bombardments known to have occurred early in the earth's history.

Water vapor in the atmosphere condensed and rained down, eventually forming lakes and oceans. The oceans provided homes for the earliest organisms which were probably similar to cyanobacteria. Oxygen was released into the atmosphere by these early organisms, and carbon became sequestered in sedimentary rocks. This led to our current oxidizing atmosphere, which is mostly comprised of nitrogen (roughly 71 percent) and oxygen (roughly 28 percent). Water vapor, argon and carbon dioxide together comprise a much smaller fraction (roughly 1 percent). The atmosphere also contains several gases in trace amounts, such as helium, neon, methane and nitrous oxide. One very important trace gas is ozone, which absorbs harmful UV radiation from the sun.

Atmospheric structure

The earth's atmosphere extends outward to about 1,000 kilometers where it transitions to interplanetary space. However, most of the mass of the atmosphere (greater than 99 percent) is located within the first 40 kilometers. The sun and the earth are the main sources of radiant energy in the atmosphere. The sun's radiation spans the infrared, visible and ultraviolet light regions, while the earth's radiation is mostly infrared.

The vertical temperature profile of the atmosphere is variable and depends upon the types of radiation that affect each atmospheric layer. This, in turn, depends upon the chemical composition of that layer (mostly involving trace gases). Based on these factors, the atmosphere can be divided into four distinct layers: the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere.

The troposphere is the atmospheric layer closest to the earth's surface. It extends about 8 - 16 kilometers from the earth's surface. The thickness of the layer varies a few km according to latitude and the season of the year. It is thicker near the equator and during the summer, and thinner near the poles and during the winter. The troposphere contains the largest percentage of the mass of the atmosphere relative to the other layers. It also contains some 99 percent of the total water vapor of the atmosphere.

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Source:  OpenStax, Ap environmental science. OpenStax CNX. Sep 25, 2009 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10548/1.2
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