Role of the Earth's Atmosphere

The earth's atmosphere is the environment for most of its biological activity and exerts a considerable influence on the ocean and lake environment (see biosphere). Weather consists of the day-to-day fluctuations of environmental variables and includes the motion of wind and formation of weather systems such as hurricanes. Climate is the normal or long-term average state of the atmospheric environment (as determined in spans of about 50 years). The atmosphere protects earth's life forms from harmful radiation and cosmic debris. The ozone layer also protects the earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays; seasonal "holes" in the ozone layer, the first detected above Antarctica and the Arctic in the 1980s, have caused considerable alarm about the consequences of air pollution. Meteors strike the thermosphere and mesosphere and burn from the heat generated by air friction.

See also Van Allen radiation belts; global warming.

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

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