Structure, Composition of Atmosphere

  • Earth is a unique planet because life is found only on this planet.
  • The air has a special place among the conditions necessary for 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. One cannot imagine any kind of life in the absence of it. The atmosphere is like a large protective cover.
  • Besides many gases, water vapour and dust particles are also found in the atmosphere.

Thermal Structure of the Atmosphere

Atmospheric layers are characterized by variations in temperature resulting primarily from the absorption of solar radiation; visible light at the surface, near ultraviolet radiation in the middle atmosphere, and far ultraviolet radiation in the upper atmosphere.

Structure, Composition of Atmosphere


  • The troposphere is the atmospheric layer closest to the planet and contains the largest percentage (around 80%) of the mass of the total atmosphere.
  • Temperature and water vapor content in the troposphere decrease rapidly with altitude.
  • Water vapor plays a major role in regulating air temperature because it absorbs solar energy and thermal radiation from the planet’s surface.
  • The troposphere contains 99 % of the water vapor in the atmosphere.
  • Water vapor concentrations vary with latitude. They are greatest above the tropics, where they may be as high as 3 %, and decrease toward the polar regions.
  • All weather phenomena occur within the troposphere, although turbulence may extend into the lower portion of the stratosphere.
  • Troposphere means “region of mixing” and is so named because of vigorous convective air currents within the layer.
  • The upper boundary of the layer, known as the tropopause, ranges in height from 5 miles (8 km) near the poles up to 11 miles (18 km) above the equator. Its height also varies with the seasons; highest in the summer and lowest in the winter.


  • The stratosphere is the second major strata of air in the atmosphere.
  • It extends above the tropopause to an altitude of about 30 miles (50 km) above the planet’s surface.
  • The air temperature in the stratosphere remains relatively constant up to an altitude of 15 miles (25 km).
  • Then it increases gradually to up to the stratopause.
  • Because the air temperature in the stratosphere increases with altitude, it does not cause convection and has a stabilizing effect on atmospheric conditions in the region.
  • Ozone plays the major role in regulating the thermal regime of the stratosphere, as water vapor content within the layer is very low.
    • Temperature increases with ozone concentration.
    • Solar energy is converted to kinetic energy when ozone molecules absorb ultraviolet radiation, resulting in heating of the stratosphere.
    • The ozone layer is centered at an altitude between 10-15 miles (15-25 km).
    • Approximately 90 % of the ozone in the atmosphere resides in the stratosphere.
    • Ozone concentration in this region is about 10 parts per million by volume (ppmv) as compared to approximately 0.04 ppmv in the troposphere.
    • Ozone absorbs the bulk of solar ultraviolet radiation in wavelengths from 290 nm – 320 nm (UV-B radiation). These wavelengths are harmful to life because they can be absorbed by the nucleic acid in cells.
    • Increased penetration of ultraviolet radiation to the planet’s surface would damage plant life and have harmful environmental consequences.
    • Appreciably large amounts of solar ultraviolet radiation would result in a host of biological effects, such as a dramatic increase in cancers.


  • The mesosphere a layer extending from approximately 30 to 50 miles (50 to 85 km) above the surface, is characterized by decreasing temperatures.
  • The coldest temperatures in Earth’s atmosphere occur at the top of this layer, the mesopause, especially in the summer near the pole.
  • The mesosphere has sometimes jocularly been referred to as the “ignorosphere” because it had been probably the least studied of the atmospheric layers.
  • The stratosphere and mesosphere together are sometimes referred to as the middle atmosphere.


  • The thermosphere is located above the mesosphere.
  • The temperature in the thermosphere generally increases with altitude reaching 600 to 3000 F (600-2000 K) depending on solar activity.
  • This increase in temperature is due to the absorption of intense solar radiation by the limited amount of remaining molecular oxygen.
  • At this extreme altitude gas molecules are widely separated.
  • Above 60 miles (100 km) from Earth’s surface the chemical composition of air becomes strongly dependent on altitude and the atmosphere becomes enriched with lighter gases (atomic oxygen, helium and hydrogen).
  • Also at 60 miles (100 km) altitude, Earth’s atmosphere becomes too thin to support aircraft and vehicles need to travel at orbital velocities to stay aloft.
  • This demarcation between aeronautics and astronautics is known as the Karman Line.
  • Above about 100 miles (160 km) altitude the major atmospheric component becomes atomic oxygen.
  • At very high altitudes, the residual gases begin to stratify according to molecular mass, because of gravitational separation.


  • The exosphere is the most distant atmospheric region from Earth’s surface.
  • In the exosphere, an upward travelling molecule can escape to space (if it is moving fast enough) or be pulled back to Earth by gravity (if it isn’t) with little probability of colliding with another molecule.
  • The altitude of its lower boundary, known as the thermopause or exobase, ranges from about 150 to 300 miles (250-500 km) depending on solar activity.
  • The upper boundary can be defined theoretically by the altitude (about 120,000 miles, half the distance to the Moon) at which the influence of solar radiation pressure on atomic hydrogen velocities exceeds that of the Earth’s gravitational pull.
  • The exosphere observable from space as the geocorona is seen to extend to at least 60,000 miles from the surface of the Earth.
  • The exosphere is a transitional zone between Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

Magneto-electronic Structure of the Atmosphere

The upper atmosphere is also divided into regions based on the behaviour and number of free electrons and other charged particles.

Structure, Composition of Atmosphere


  • The ionosphere is defined by atmospheric effects on radiowave propagation as a result of the presence and variation in concentration of free electrons in the atmosphere.
  • The ionosphere above the peak electron concentration is usually referred to as the Topside Ionosphere.


Structure, Composition of Atmosphere

  • The plasmasphere is not really spherical but a doughnut-shaped region (a torus) with the hole aligned with Earth’s magnetic axis.
  • The Earth’s plasmasphere is made of just that, a plasma, the fourth state of matter.
  • This plasma is composed mostly of hydrogen ions (protons) and electrons. It has a very sharp edge called the plasmapause.
  • The outer edge of this doughnut over the equator is usually some 4 to 6 Earth radii from the center of the Earth or 12,000-20,000 miles (19,000-32,000 km) above the surface. The plasmasphere is essentially an extension of the ionosphere.
  • Inside of the plasmapause, geomagnetic field lines rotate with the Earth.
  • The inner edge of the plasmasphere is taken as the altitude at which protons replace oxygen as the dominant species in the ionospheric plasma which usually occurs at about 600 miles (1000 km) altitude.
  • The plasmasphere can also be considered to be a structure within the magnetosphere.


Structure, Composition of Atmosphere

  • Outside the plasmapause, magnetic field lines are unable to corotate because they are influenced strongly by electric fields of solar wind origin.
  • The magnetosphere is a cavity (also not spherical) in which the Earth’s magnetic field is constrained by the solar wind and interplanetary magnetic field (IMF).
  • The outer boundary of the magnetosphere is called the magnetopause.
  • The magnetosphere is shaped like an elongated teardrop (like a Christmas Tree ornament) with the tail pointing away from the Sun.
  • The magnetopause is typically located at about 10 Earth radii or some 35,000 miles (about 56,000 km) above the Earth’s surface on the day side and stretches into a long tail, the magnetotail, a few million miles long (about 1000 Earth radii), well past the orbit of the Moon (at around 60 Earth radii), on the night side of the Earth.
  • However, the Moon itself is usually not within the magnetosphere except for a couple of days around the Full Moon.
  • Beyond the magnetopause are the magnetosheathand bow shock which are regions in the solar wind disturbed by the presence of Earth and its magnetic field.
  • The atmosphere is a mixture of many gases. In addition, it contains huge numbers of solid and liquid particles, collectively called ‘aerosols’.
  • Some of the gases may be regarded as permanent atmospheric componentswhich remain in fixed proportion to the total gas volume.
  • Other constituents vary in quantity from place to place and from time to time. If the suspended particles, water vapour and other variable gases were excluded from the atmosphere, then the dry air is very stable all over the earth up to an altitude of about 80 kilometres.
  • The proportion of gases changes in the higher layers of the atmosphere in such a way that oxygen will be almost in negligible quantity at the height of 120 km. Similarly, carbon dioxide and water vapour are found only up to 90 km from the surface of the earth.
  • Nitrogen and oxygenmake up nearly 99% of the clean, dry air. The remaining gases are mostly inert and constitute about 1% of the atmosphere.
  • Besides these gases, large quantities of water vapour and dust particles are also present in the atmosphere. These solid and liquid particles are of great climatic significance.

The details of different gases of the atmosphere are given in the table below.

Structure, Composition of Atmosphere

Different constituents of the atmosphere, with their individual characteristics, are discussed below.

Gases of the atmosphere:

The atmosphere is the mixture of different types of gases, including water vapour and dust particles. Nitrogen and Oxygen are the two main gases of the atmosphere. 99 percent part of it is made up of these two gases. Other gases like organ, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, nion, helium etc. form the remaining part of atmosphere.

  • Nitrogen:
    Nitrogen accounts for 78% of total atmospheric volume. It is a relatively inert gas, and is an important constituent of all organic compounds. The main function of nitrogen is to control combustion by diluting oxygen. It also indirectly helps in oxidation of different kinds.
  • Oxygen:
    Oxygen, although constituting only 21%of total volume of atmosphere, is the most important component among gases. All living organisms inhale oxygen. Besides, oxygen can combine with other elements to form important compounds, such as, oxides. Also, combustion is not possible without oxygen.
  • Carbon dioxide:
    • The third important gas is Carbon Dioxide which constitutes only about 03%of the dry air and is a product of combustion.
    • Green plants, through photosynthesis, absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to manufacture food and keep other bio-physical processes going.
    • Being an efficient absorber of heat, carbon dioxide is considered to be of great climatic significance.
    • Carbon dioxide is considered to be a very important factor in the heat energy budget.
    • With increased burning of fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas – the carbon dioxide percentage in the atmosphere has been increasing at an alarming rate.
    • More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more heat absorption. This could significantly raise the temperature at lower levels of the atmosphere thus inducing drastic climatic changes.
  • Ozone:
    • Ozone (03) is another important gas in the atmosphere, which is actually a type of oxygen molecule consisting of three, instead of two, atoms.
    • It forms less than 0.00005% by volume of the atmosphere and is unevenly distributed.
    • It is between 20 km and 25 km altitude that the greatest concentrations of ozone are found.
    • It is formed at higher altitudes and transported downwards.
    • Ozone plays a crucial role in blocking the harmful ultraviolet radiationfrom the sun.
    • Other gases found in almost negligible quantities in the atmosphere are neon, helium, hydrogen, xenon, krypton, methane etc.

Water vapour

  • Gaseous form of water persent in the atmosphere is called water vapour.
  • Water vapour present in the atmosphere has made life possible on the earth Water vapour is the source of all kinds of precipitation.
  • Its maximum amount in the atmosphere could be upto 4 percent.
  • Maximum amount of water vapour is found in hot-wet regions and its least amount is found in the dry regions.
  • Generally, the amount of water vapour goes on decreasing from low latitudes to high latitudes.
  • In the same way, its amount goes on decreasing with increasing altitude.
  • Water vapour reaches in the atmosphere through evaporation and transpiration.
  • Evaporation takes place in the oceans, seas, rivers, ponds and lakes while transpiration takes lace from the plants, trees and living beings.

Dust Particles

  • Dust particles are generally found in the lower layers of the atmosphere.
  • These particles are found in the form of sand, smoke and oceanic salt.
  • Sand particle have important place in the atmosphere.
  • These dust particles help in the condensation of water vapour.
  • During condensation water vapour gets condensed in the form of droplets around these dust particles.
  • Due to this process the clouds are formed and precipitation is made possible