Atmospheric composition

April 4, 2013, 5:45 pm
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By Carla Nunziata (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Table 1: Average composition of the
atmosphere up to an altitude of 25 km.
Gas Name Chemical Formula Percent Volume
Nitrogen N2 78.08%
Oxygen O2 20.95%
*Water H2O 0 to 4%
Argon Ar 0.93%
*Carbon dioxide CO2 0.0360%
Neon Ne 0.0018%
Helium He 0.0005%
*Methane CH4 0.00017%
Hydrogen H2 0.00005%
*Nitrous oxide N2O 0.00003%
*Ozone O3 0.000004%
* variable gases

Table 1 lists the eleven most abundant gases found in the Earth's lower atmosphere by volume. Of the gases listed, nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone are extremely important to the health of the Earth's biosphere.

The table indicates that nitrogen and oxygen are the main components of the atmosphere by volume. Together these two gases make up approximately 99% of the dry atmosphere. Both of these gases have very important associations with life. Nitrogen is removed from the atmosphere and deposited at the Earth's surface mainly by specialized nitrogen fixing bacteria, and by way of lightning through precipitation. The addition of this nitrogen to the Earth's surface soils and various water bodies supplies much needed nutrition for plant growth. Nitrogen returns to the atmosphere primarily through biomass combustion and denitrification.

Oxygen is exchanged between the atmosphere and life through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration. Photosynthesis produces oxygen when carbon dioxide and water are chemically converted into glucose with the help of sunlight. Respiration is the opposite process of photosynthesis. In respiration, oxygen is combined with glucose to chemically release energy for metabolism. The products of this reaction are water and carbon dioxide.

caption Figure 1:Global distribution of water vapor for January 2003 from the Earth's surface to the top of the atmosphere as measured in millimeters of precipitable water. During January, the atmosphere contains low amounts of water vapor over the continents of North America and Eurasia which are experiencing winter. The highest concentrations of water vapor are found over the equator, Brazil, Indonesia, northern Australia, the Indian Ocean, and the western side of South Pacific Ocean at the tropics and subtropics.(Source: NASA's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder)

The next most abundant gas on the table is water vapor. Water vapor varies in concentration in the atmosphere both spatially and temporally (see Figures 1 and 2). The highest concentrations of water vapor are found near the equator over the oceans and tropical rain forests. Cold polar areas and subtropical continental deserts are locations where the volume of water vapor can approach zero percent. Water vapor has several very important functional roles on our planet:

  • It redistributes heat energy on the Earth through latent heat energy exchange.
  • The condensation of water vapor creates precipitation that falls to the Earth's surface providing needed fresh water for plants and animals.
  • It helps warm the Earth's atmosphere through the greenhouse effect.

The fifth most abundant gas in the atmosphere is carbon dioxide. The volume of this gas has increased by over 35% in the last three hundred years (see Figure 3). This increase is primarily due to human activities such as combustion of fossil fuels, deforestation, and other forms of land-use change. Some scientists believe that this increase is causing global warming through an enhancement of the greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is also exchanged between the atmosphere and life through the processes of photosynthesis and respiration.

caption Figure 2:Global distribution of water vapor for July 2003 from the Earth's surface to the top of the atmosphere as measured in millimeters of precipitable water. Compared to the month of January, the continents of North America and Eurasia see a significant increase in atmospheric water vapor. Areas with the highest concentrations of water vapor are found over the equator, India, southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, central Africa, western side of the North Pacific Ocean at the tropics and subtropics, and along the east coast of the USA. (Source: NASA's Atmospheric Infrared Sounder)

Methane is a very strong greenhouse gas. Since 1750, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have increased by more than 150%. The primary sources for the additional methane added to the atmosphere (in order of importance) are: rice cultivation; domestic grazing animals; termites; landfills; coal mining; and oil and gas extraction. Anaerobic conditions associated with rice paddy flooding results in the formation of methane gas. However, an accurate estimate of how much methane is being produced from rice paddies has been difficult to ascertain. More than 60% of all rice paddies are found in India and China where scientific data concerning emission rates are unavailable. Nevertheless, scientists believe that the contribution of rice paddies is large because this form of crop production has more than doubled since 1950. Grazing animals release methane to the environment as a result of herbaceous digestion. Some researchers believe the addition of methane from this source has more than quadrupled over the last century. Termites also release methane through similar processes. Land-use change in the tropics, due to deforestation, ranching, and farming, may be causing termite numbers to expand. If this assumption is correct, the contribution from these insects may be important. Methane is also released from landfills, coal mines, and gas and oil drilling. Landfills produce methane as organic wastes decompose over time. Coal, oil, and natural gas deposits release methane to the atmosphere when these deposits are excavated or drilled.

The average concentration of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide is now increasing at a rate of 0.2 to 0.3% per year. Its part in the enhancement of the greenhouse effect is minor relative to the other greenhouse gases already mentioned. However, it does have an important role in the artificial fertilization of ecosystems. In extreme cases, this fertilization can lead to the death of forests, eutrophication of aquatic habitats, and species exclusion. Sources for the increase of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere include: land-use conversion; fossil fuel combustion; biomass burning; and soil fertilization. Most of the nitrous oxide added to the atmosphere each year comes from deforestation and the conversion of forest, savanna and grassland ecosystems into agricultural fields and rangeland. Both of these processes reduce the amount of nitrogen stored in living vegetation and soil through the decomposition of organic matter. Nitrous oxide is also released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels and biomass are burned. However, the combined contribution to the increase of this gas in the atmosphere is thought to be minor. The use of nitrate and ammonium fertilizers to enhance plant growth is another source of nitrous oxide, yet how much is released from this process has been difficult to quantify. Estimates suggest that the contribution from this source represents from 50% to 0.2% of nitrous oxide added to the atmosphere annually.

caption Figure 3: Changing Content of Carbon Dioxide in the Earth's Atmosphere. The following graph illustrates the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from 1744 to 2005. Note that the increase in carbon dioxide's concentration in the atmosphere has been exponential during the period examined. An extrapolation into the immediate future would suggest continued increases. (Source:

Ozone's role in the enhancement of the greenhouse effect has been difficult to determine. Accurate measurements of past long-term (more than 25 years in the past) levels of this gas in the atmosphere are currently unavailable. Moreover, concentrations of ozone gas are found in two different regions of the Earth's atmosphere. The majority of the ozone (about 97%) found in the atmosphere is concentrated in the stratosphere at an altitude of 15 to 55 kilometers above the Earth's surface. This stratospheric ozone provides an important service to life on the Earth as it absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation. In recent years, levels of stratospheric ozone have been decreasing due to the buildup of human-created chlorofluorocarbons in the atmosphere. Since the late 1970s, scientists have noticed the development of severe holes in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Satellite measurements have indicated that the zone from 65° North to 65° South latitude has had a 3% decrease in stratospheric ozone since 1978.

Ozone is also highly concentrated at the Earth's surface in and around cities. Most of this ozone is created as a byproduct of human-created photochemical smog. This buildup of ozone is toxic to organisms living at the Earth's surface.

Further Reading



Pidwirny, M. (2013). Atmospheric composition. Retrieved from


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