Layers of the Atmosphere

Clouds
Layers of the atmosphere. © by Martin Deja / Getty Images

The earth is surrounded by the atmosphere, which is the body of air or gasses that protects the planet and enables life. Most of our atmosphere is located close to the earth's surface where it is most dense. The air of our planet is 79% nitrogen and just under 21% oxygen; the small amount remaining is composed of carbon dioxide and other gasses. There are five distinct layers of the earth. Let's look at each, from closest to farthest from the earth.

Troposphere

The layer of the atmosphere closest to the earth is the troposphere. This layer is where weather occurs. It begins at the surface of the earth and extends out to about 4-12 miles. The temperature of the troposphere decreases with height. This layer is known as the lower atmosphere.

Stratosphere

Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which extends to about 30-35 miles above the earth's surface. Temperature rises within the stratosphere but still remains well below freezing.

Mesosphere

From about 35 to 50 miles above the surface of the earth lies the mesosphere, where the air is especially thin and molecules are great distances apart. Temperatures in the mesosphere reach a low of -184°F (-120°C). The stratosphere and the mesosphere are the middle atmospheres.

Thermosphere

The thermosphere rises several hundred miles above the earth's surface, from 50 miles up to about 400 miles. Temperature increases with height and can rise to as high as 3,600°F (2000°C).

Nonetheless, the air would feel cold because the hot molecules are so far apart. This layer is known as the upper atmosphere.

Exosphere

Extending from the top of the thermosphere to 6200 miles (10,000 km) above the earth is the exosphere. This layer has very few atmospheric molecules, which can escape into space.

Pauses

Between each layer of the atmosphere is a boundary. Above the troposphere is the tropopause; above the stratosphere is the stratopause; above the mesosphere is the mesopause; and above the thermosphere is the thermopause. At these "pauses," maximum change between the "spheres" occur.