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The layers of the atmosphere: what are they and their characteristics

The atmosphere is divided into four layers according to temperature: troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere.

The atmosphere is the envelope of gas that surrounds the Earth. Depending on the area of ​​study, the atmosphere can be divided into several layers from the surface to outer space.

In chemistry it is divided into homosphere and heterosphere depending on the composition of gases. Depending on the function, the atmosphere is divided into ozonosphere and ionosphere.

Below we present the different layers of the atmosphere and their characteristics.

the layers of the atmosphere in three classification systems


The troposphere is the layer of the atmosphere in contact with the earth’s surface. It is the most important for the development of life and where climatic events occur, such as snowfall, storms, winds and clouds.

It extends from 0 km to 10 km high at the poles to 17 km high at the equator. Temperatures in the troposphere decrease as you rise in altitude.

The tropopause it is the transition phase between the troposphere and the next layer which is the stratosphere.

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The stratosphere is the second layer of the atmosphere that extends from 20 km to 58 km altitude. In this layer is the ozone layer, a protective belt against ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Water can also be obtained in the form of ice clouds.

The temperature of the stratosphere remains constant at -57 ºC up to an altitude of 32 km, then rises to approximately 10 ºC when reaching the stratopausethe transition phase towards the mesosphere.


The mesosphere is the third layer of the atmosphere that extends between 58 and 80 km of altitude. Temperatures drop from 10 º C to – 80 º C as you rise in height. When meteorites reach this layer, they disappear.

The mesopause it is the transition phase between the mesosphere and the next layer, the thermosphere.


The thermosphere is the last layer according to the physical classification that goes from 80 km to 800 km. In this layer, temperatures can rise to 1100 ºC.

The International Space Station and some artificial satellites orbit this layer of the atmosphere. Auroras also occur here.

Functional classification of the atmosphere

An alternative classification of the atmosphere is based on the function of its layers. In this sense, the atmosphere is divided into two layers: the ozonosphere and the ionosphere.


This layer ranges from 15 to 50 km above the surface, the ozonosphere includes the ozone layer whose function is to filter ultraviolet rays.

Ozone is a molecule composed of three O oxygens3 which is toxic to life on Earth’s surface. However, without the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, all UV radiation would reach the Earth, causing burns and damage to living things.

The ozonosphere corresponds to the troposphere, stratosphere and part of the mesosphere of the physical classification.


the aurora borealis occurs in the ionosphere
The northern lights are phenomena that occur in the ionosphere.

The ionosphere fulfills the function of shielding the Earth against harmful radiation from outer space. It extends from 60 km to 400 km above the Earth. The ionosphere corresponds to the mesosphere and the thermosphere.

The name ionosphere refers to the ionization of molecules and atoms that occurs in this layer. Ionization occurs when an atom is transformed into an ion when it gains or loses electrons, due to X-rays and UV and gamma and UV radiation.

Communication signals are also transmitted in the ionosphere and auroras occur.

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Chemical classification of the atmosphere

Atmospheric chemists divide the atmosphere according to chemical composition into homosphere and heterosphere.


This layer starts at the surface and reaches up to 80 km. The composition of gases remains more or less homogeneous (from the Greek man, equal). Nitrogen N2 is found in greater proportion with 78%, followed by oxygen O2 with 21%; the rest is represented by noble gases, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ozone and water vapor.


Above 80 km is the heterosphere, where gases begin to separate into different layers. The heavier nitrogen is lower down while the lighter gases like atomic hydrogen are concentrated on the outside.


Gabler, RE, Petersen, JF, Trapasso, LM Sack, D. (2009) Physical Geography 9th ed. Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning. USA

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