Wonder Wednesday: Atmospheric Layers

Weather
A look at the layers of the atmosphere, and where things go in comparison. Picture courtesy of Marco Saporiti via wikimediacommons.

Our atmosphere provides more than many may realize. It’s the air we breathe, and it helps keep us warm at night and cool during the day. But like many other weather items, the atmosphere has different layers, each one with its own properties. Those levels are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere and exosphere. Let’s break down each level and what they do.

Starting with the layer closest to the surface of the planet, the troposphere extends about 6.2 miles (about 10 kilometers) into the sky. Most, but not all, clouds form in this layer, and most of our weather events like storms and showers occur in this part of the atmosphere. Typically, when a thunderstorm is brewing and you can see the top of the “anvil” in the distance, this is the top of the troposphere. The higher up in the troposphere we go, the colder it gets, and air pressure drops, which makes it harder to breathe.

The next level above the troposphere is the stratosphere. This layer of air extends another 31 miles (50 kilometers) beyond the top of the troposphere. The ozone layer is found here, and helps convert the UV rays from the sun to heat for us. If the ozone layer didn’t exist, we wouldn’t be able to live on Earth because the direct contact of the UV rays would kill off our plants and we would no longer have oxygen to survive. Another item at the bottom of the stratosphere is the jet stream, which helps drive weather patterns around the world. Unlike the troposphere, the stratosphere gets warmer the higher up it goes. This gives a lack of turbulence, which is why planes fly in the lower part of the stratosphere.

Our next level to look at is the mesosphere. The mesosphere goes up to about 53 miles (85 kilometers) from the surface of the earth. Similar to the troposphere, the temperatures get colder the higher in elevation. Temperatures at the peak of this layer are usually around 130 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (or 90 degrees below zero Celcius)! Not only is it cold, but the air is too thin to sustain any sort of life, and meteors will burn up at this layer.

A shot of the Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis. Picture courtesy of wikimediacommons.

The thermosphere is the next layer in our atmosphere, and is a very thick layer above the mesosphere. When UV rays hit this layer, it warms up the air up hundreds to thousands of degrees. Normally, the temperatures at this layer is anywhere from 932-3,632 degrees Fahrenheit (500-2000 degrees Celsius)! But because the air is practically paper thin, it will still feel freezing to us. Whenever we see the Northern or Southern Lights (Aurora Borealis), that is the UV rays from the sun reflecting off the thermosphere.

The last “layer” to the atmosphere is called the exosphere. This is what many would consider the final frontier of the air. Sitting just above the thermosphere, and no definite boundaries known, this is the last layer and is said to disappear into space. The top of this layer is said to vary between 62-120 thousand miles (100-190 thousand kilometers), which is half way to the moon!

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