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atmosphere

Components and Characteristics of the Earth's Atmosphere

The first 40 to 50 mi (64–80 km) above the earth contains 99% of the total mass of the earth's atmosphere and is generally of a uniform composition, except for a high concentration of ozone, known as the ozone layer, at 12–30 mi (19–50 km). Calculated according to their relative volumes, the gaseous constituents of the atmosphere are nitrogen, 78.09%; oxygen, 20.95%; argon, 0.93%; carbon dioxide, 0.03%; and minute traces of neon, helium, methane, krypton, hydrogen, xenon, and ozone. The lower atmosphere contains varying amounts of water vapor, which determine its humidity. Condensation and sublimation within the atmosphere cause clouds or fog, and the resulting liquid water droplets or ice crystals may precipitate to the ground as rain, sleet, snow, hail, dew, or frost. The air also carries many kinds of dust, of meteoric as well as terrestrial origin, and microorganisms, pollen, salt particles, and various gaseous and solid impurities resulting from human activity (see pollution). Because of the pull of gravity the density of the atmosphere and the pressure exerted by air molecules are greatest near the earth's surface (about 1 gram per 103 cc and about 106 dynes per sq cm, respectively). The instrument used to measure air pressure is called a barometer. Air pressure decreases quickly with altitude, reaching one half of its sea-level value at about 18,000 ft (5,500 m).

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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