Science, Tech, Math › Science What Is the Most Abundant Gas in Earth's Atmosphere? Composition of the Atmosphere (and why you should care) Share Flipboard Email Print The most abundant gas in the atmosphere is nitrogen. Even though you may see a lot of clouds, water vapor only account for up to 4% of the composition. Andrew Latshaw / EyeEm/Getty Images Science Chemistry Molecules Basics Chemical Laws Periodic Table Projects & Experiments Scientific Method Biochemistry Physical Chemistry Medical Chemistry Chemistry In Everyday Life Famous Chemists Activities for Kids Abbreviations & Acronyms Biology Physics Geology Astronomy Weather & Climate By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Chemistry Expert Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. our editorial process Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Updated November 06, 2019 By far, the most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen, which accounts for about 78% of the mass of dry air. Oxygen is the next most abundant gas, present at levels of 20 to 21%. Although humid air seems like it contains a lot of water, the maximum amount of water vapor that air can hold is only about 4%. Key Takeaways: Gases in Earth's Atmosphere The most abundant gas in the Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen. The second most abundant gas is oxygen. Both of these gases occur as diatomic molecules.The amount of water vapor is highly variable. In hot, humid locations, it is the third most abundant gas. This makes it the most common greenhouse gas.In dry air, the third most abundant gas is argon, a monatomic noble gas.The abundance of carbon dioxide is variable. While it is an important greenhouse gas, it is only present an average of 0.04 percent, by mass. Abundance of Gases in the Atmosphere This table lists the eleven most abundant gases in the lower portion of Earth's atmosphere (up to 25 km). While the percentage of nitrogen and oxygen are fairly stable, the amount of greenhouse gases changes and depends on location. Water vapor is extremely variable. In arid or extremely cold regions, water vapor may be nearly absent. In warm, tropical regions, water vapor accounts for a significant portion of atmospheric gases. Some references include other gases on this list, such as krypton (less abundant than helium, but more than hydrogen), xenon (less abundant than hydrogen), nitrogen dioxide (less abundant than ozone), and iodine (less abundant than ozone). Gas Formula Percent Volume Nitrogen N2 78.08% Oxygen O2 20.95% Water* H2O 0% to 4% Argon Ar 0.93% Carbon Dioxide* CO2 0.0360% Neon Ne 0.0018% Helium He 0.0005% Methane* CH4 0.00017% Hydrogen H2 0.00005% Nitrous Oxide* N2O 0.0003% Ozone* O3 0.000004% * gases with variable composition Reference: Pidwirny, M. (2006). "Atmospheric Composition". Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition. The average concentration of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous dioxide has been increasing. Ozone is concentrated around cities and in the Earth's stratosphere. In addition to the elements in the table and krypton, xenon, nitrogen dioxide, and iodine (all mentioned earlier), there are trace amounts of ammonia, carbon monoxide, and several other gases. Why Is Important To Know the Abundance of Gases? It's important to know which gas is most abundant, what the other gases are in the Earth's atmosphere, and how the composition of air changes with altitude and over time for multiple reasons. The information helps us understand and predict the weather. The amount of water vapor in the air is particularly relevant to weather forecasting. The gas composition helps us understand the effects of natural and man-made chemicals released into the atmosphere. The make-up of the atmosphere is extremely important for climate, so changes in gases may help us predict broad climate change. Sources Lide, David R. (1996). Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. CRC. Boca Raton, FL.Wallace, John M.; Hobbs, Peter V. (2006). Atmospheric Science: An Introductory Survey (2nd ed.). Elsevier. ISBN 978-0-12-732951-2. Meet the 10 Worst Greenhouse Gases Nitrogen and the Gases in the Atmosphere What Would Happen If Earth's Atmosphere Vanished? What Are the 4 Most Abundant Gases in Earth's Atmosphere? What Are the Causes of Global Warming? What State of Matter Is Fire or Flame? Learn the Chemical Formulas for Common Chemicals Why You Should Put Nitrogen in Your Tires Use Henry's Law to Calculate Concentration of Gas in a Solution What Is an Oxide? All About Planet Venus Scientific Definition of Air Know the Density of Air at STP Another Top Greenhouse Gas: Methane What Actually Are the Greenhouse Gases? What Is the Greenhouse Effect?