The Atmosphere

The atmosphere is perhaps the component of the climate system that is most intimately connected to our daily experiences. Atmosphere is to us humans as water to fish: we live in the atmosphere. The oxygen we need every minute is indeed rich in the atmosphere--dry air contains 21% oxygen by volume. The most abundant gas in the atmosphere, however, is nitrogen (78%), a highly stable gas. Other gases are water vapor, argon, carbon dioxide, Neon, Helium, Methane, Kryton, Hydrogen, and Ozone. The atmosphere also contains liquid water droplets and ice crystals: clouds.

The presence of water vapor, clouds, CO2, CH4, and O3 in the atmosphere, coupled with the temperature distribution of the atmosphere, warms the earth through the so-called greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect of the atmosphere refers to the fact that the infrared radiation leaving for space at the top of the atmosphere is smaller than the outgoing emission from the earth's surface. This is because the aforementioned constituents absorb the surface emission and remit at a generally lower temperature than the earth's surface temperature. Water vapor and clouds are the major contributors to the greenhouse effect. CO2, though a secondary contributor to the greenhouse effect of the present earth's atmosphere, has been increasing exponentially due to our industrial activities, which underlines the concern with man-made climate change.

Relative to its two adjacent sister planets (Venus and Mars), the Earth's atmosphere is abundant with water. Water in its various phases--vapor, cloud droplets, and the ice crystals are the most variable components of the atmosphere. Their variability is closely associated with moist convection in the atmosphere. Moist convection is the process that gives us clouds, rain, snow, and hails. In the tropics, moist convection can take a highly organized form, such as the hurricanes or typhoons.

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