A virtual elevator ride through Earth’s atmosphere

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Almost all weather on Earth occurs in the lowest part of Earth’s atmosphere- called the troposphere. While we mainly care about this bottom portion as it’s where we live & breathe, there’s more layers to explore! Hop inside & let’s visit the rest!

Our first stop at roughly 30 thousand feet above the ground is the Tropopause. It’s the dividing line between the troposphere and the layer above it, the stratosphere.

You likely have been to the lower part of this second layer of the atmosphere before as commercial airlines prefer flying here to avoid turbulence below in the chaotic troposphere! Think about the pilot making an announcement on the last time you flew: “the fasten seat belt sign is off as we’ve reached our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.”

This stable second layer of the atmosphere is due to a flip in temperature trends which we’ll come back to in next week’s Moment of Science but let’s continue on. 

As we rise higher and higher, the air gets thinner and thinner. Thankfully this trip is just a thought experiment as we’d be struggling to breathe now as 99% of Earth’s air is in the lowest 19 miles of atmosphere. 

At roughly 31 miles above the surface, we’ve made it to the starting point for the next layer- the Mesosphere. The to coldest temperatures in our atmosphere exist in this third layer, but despite the cold, this is where most meteors burn up! In addition to shooting stars, there’s a lot of weird phenomena that happen here: from the highest clouds on Earth to strange electrical discharges that occur above strong thunderstorms. 

Let’s go even higher, making a pit stop at the International Space Station, which orbits in the 4th atmospheric layer: the Thermosphere.

It can be quite colorful up here with the aurora occurring in this section! At this point there aren’t enough molecules to transfer heat…or even sound. This is truly where outer space begins.

Surprisingly our atmosphere extends even further. The exosphere. 

There’s no weather, no air, just some gas molecules scattered few and far in-between in this 5th and final layer that gradually fades into deep space. There’s some debate whether or not this is truly a part of our atmosphere as what little molecules exist this high up are constantly being lost to space.

Photo credit: NASA

In this real image of our layered atmosphere taken from the ISS we would be in the top right corner, in the deep blackness of space, which gradually fades into the Thermosphere, then the Mesosphere in light blue, the stratosphere in pink, and finally, highlighted in a vibrant orange, the troposphere, where our journey began. 

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

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