Troposphere: Definition, Facts, Temperature & Characteristics Video

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  • 0:44 What is the Troposphere?
  • 1:08 Gasses in the Troposhere
  • 2:11 Temperature in the Troposphere
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Linda Fye
Learn the definition of the troposphere and its role in Earth's atmosphere. Understand the characteristics associated with it, and appreciate its importance to Earth.

What Is the Troposphere?

Have you ever seen a severe thunderstorm that looked like an anvil? Thunderstorms take this shape because the rising air that creates the storm hits a layer in the atmosphere where the temperature changes. This change in temperature makes it difficult for the air to continue to rise, so instead, the air spreads out, creating the anvil shape. If you ever see an anvil-shaped thunderstorm where the air seems to be rising above the anvil barrier, then it is a very severe storm. This means that the air in the storm is rising with so much force that it can break the thermal barrier that normally stops it, and this is a sign of severe weather.

The air rising in a thunderstorm is rising through the first layer in the atmosphere, called the troposphere, and the thermal layer that creates the anvil shape is the top layer of the troposphere called the tropopause. It is only within the troposphere that thunderstorms and all other weather events occur. However, the troposphere is only part of Earth's atmosphere.

The layers of the atmosphere
The layers of the atmosphere

Gases in the Troposphere

Earth's atmosphere is made up of gas molecules that are packed close together near the surface and thin out more and more until about 300 miles above Earth's surface. This is due to gravity. There are four distinct layers of the atmosphere, and each one has different characteristics. Each layer has a different density and temperature. The temperature changes are based on how much solar energy is absorbed. The layer closest to the Earth's surface is the one most important to life on the planet, and it is called the troposphere.

The troposphere is made up of several different gases. And, there are a couple of interesting things about the gases. The first is that the troposphere is made of 78% nitrogen, which is by far and away the most plentiful gas in our air. Also, oxygen, the gas that is so crucial to life on the planet, only makes up 21% of the air. All the other gases combined make up the remaining 1%, including carbon dioxide.

The gases of the troposphere
The gases of the troposphere

Temperature in the Troposphere

The notable thing about carbon dioxide is that the amount of it in the troposphere drastically affects Earth's temperature. If there is a smaller amount, Earth experiences ice ages, and if there is a larger amount, there are very warm periods on the planet. Whether there is warm or cold weather, carbon dioxide is a gas that is important in keeping Earth at a temperature that we can live on. It is astonishing that a gas that has such a huge impact is only a portion of 1% of the air. The other gas in the atmosphere is water vapor, and it makes up 0 to 4% of the troposphere. The percentage varies from place to place, based on temperature and available moisture.

The troposphere also varies in depth based on temperature. It is about 11 miles deep over the warm equator and about 5 miles deep over the cold poles. Air temperatures drop rapidly with altitude within the troposphere, and the temperature gets colder the higher you go, until a point is reached where this stops.

That point is the beginning of the stratosphere, which is above the troposphere. There, ozone molecules trap sunlight and warm the air. This change in temperature from the falling temperatures in the troposphere to the rising temperatures in the stratosphere makes a sharp thermal boundary at the top of the troposphere. This boundary is called the tropopause.

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