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Tropopause: Definition & Characteristics

Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson introduces and describes the tropopause. It helps the reader to understand the structure of our atmosphere and the transition between atmospheric layers. A summary and brief quiz is also included.

What Is the Tropopause?

Let's begin with a question. How many layers are in our atmosphere? I often pose this question to my introductory earth science class and receive a variety of answers in return. In fact, the atmosphere can be divided into four main layers. These layers are the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. The troposphere is the lowest layer. We live in this layer, birds fly in it, and weather happens in it. For the most part the average individual needn't worry about any other layer because, quite frankly, they'll never experience them. However, for scientists the other layers do matter, as do the transition zones between those layers. Once such transition is called the tropopause. The tropopause is the transitional area between the troposphere and stratosphere.

Atmospheric Layers
Atmospheric Layers

Characteristics of the Tropopause

So what is this tropopause? Sure, we just said it's the transition between the troposphere and stratosphere, but what exactly does it look like? How do we even know it's there? You can't really see it; after all, it's made of air. It's invisible, so how can we detect its presence? To detect the tropopause and measure where it is, scientists use temperature readings. Temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy in a substance. In other words, it's how fast the molecules in something are moving. Let's investigate further.

When you increase in altitude (go up) in the atmosphere, what happens to temperature? The answer is that temperature decreases. Think about the top of a high mountain, such as Mt. Everest. Mountain peaks are often very cold and many even contain snow year-round. So it isn't surprising that the troposphere gets colder as you go up. However, this decrease in temperature doesn't continue forever. In fact, once you enter the stratosphere, temperatures actually increase with altitude. This is an admittedly peculiar atmospheric phenomenon in which temperatures flip flop between decreasing and increasing as you move from layer to layer. However, for the purposes of this lesson we're only concerned with the initial temperature fluctuation between the troposphere and stratosphere. This transition zone is the tropopause. It's distinguishable by temperatures that stop decreasing with altitude and remain constant for a brief period. Then, once temperature begins to increase with altitude you've entered the stratosphere. Here is another illustration of the atmosphere for your reference. Pay particular attention to the red line that represents temperature.

Atmospheric Temperature Profile
Atmospheric Temperature Profile

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