18.2: Outer Regions of Atmosphere
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The mesosphere starts just above the stratosphere and extends to 85 kilometers (53 miles) high. Temperatures in the mesosphere decrease with altitude. Because there are few gas molecules in the mesosphere to absorb the Sun’s radiation, the heat source is the stratosphere below. The mesosphere is extremely cold, especially at its top, about -90 degrees C (-130 degrees F).
The air in the mesosphere has extremely low density: 99.9 percent of the mass of the atmosphere is below the mesosphere. As a result, air pressure is very low. A person traveling through the mesosphere would experience severe burns from ultraviolet light since the ozone layer which provides UV protection is in the stratosphere below. There would be almost no oxygen for breathing. Stranger yet, an unprotected traveler’s blood would boil at normal body temperature because the pressure is so low. Meteors burn up in this layer.
The thermosphere starts just above the mesosphere and extends to 600 kilometers (372 miles) high. Thermosphere is taken from the Greek word thermos which means heat. The density of molecules is so low in the thermosphere that one gas molecule can go about 1 km before it collides with another molecule. Since so little energy is transferred, the air feels very cold.
Within the thermosphere is the ionosphere. The ionosphere gets its name from the solar radiation that ionizes gas molecules to create a positively charged ion and one or more negatively charged electrons. The freed electrons travel within the ionosphere as electric currents. This dynamic region grows and shrinks based on solar conditions and divides further into the sub-regions: D, E and F; based on what wavelength of solar radiation is absorbed. The ionosphere is a critical link in the chain of Sun-Earth interactions.
Because of the free ions, the ionosphere has many interesting characteristics. At night, radio waves bounce off the ionosphere and back to Earth. This is why you can often pick up an AM radio station far from its source at night.The Van Allen radiation belts are two doughnut-shaped zones of highly charged particles that are located beyond the atmosphere in the magnetosphere. The particles originate in solar flares and fly to Earth on the solar wind. Once trapped by Earth’s magnetic field, they follow along the field’s magnetic lines of force. These lines extend from above the equator to the North Pole and also to the South Pole then return to the equator.
When massive solar storms cause the Van Allen belts to become overloaded with particles, the result is the most spectacular feature of the ionosphere — the aurora. The particles spiral along magnetic field lines toward the poles. The charged particles energize oxygen and nitrogen gas molecules, causing them to light up. Each gas emits a particular color of light.
There is no real outer limit to the exosphere, the outermost layer of the atmosphere; the gas molecules finally become so scarce that at some point there are no more. Beyond the atmosphere is the solar wind. The solar wind is made of high-speed particles, mostly protons and electrons, traveling rapidly outward from the Sun.
Figure 18.2.1 The Earth's atmosphere Credit: NASA/Goddard
Contributions from Open Geography. Located at: Open Geography(opens in new window) [www.opengeography.org]. License: CC BY: Attribution(opens in new window)