The atmosphere is a blanket of air made up of a mixture of gases that surrounds the Earth and reaches almost 350 miles from the surface of the Earth. This mixture is in constant motion. If the atmosphere were visible, it might look like an ocean with swirls and eddies, rising and falling air, and waves that travel for great distances.

Life on Earth is supported by the atmosphere, solar energy, and the planet’s magnetic fields. The atmosphere absorbs energy from the sun, recycles water and other chemicals, and works with the electrical and magnetic forces to provide a moderate climate. The atmosphere also protects life on Earth from high energy radiation and the frigid vacuum of space.

Composition of the Atmosphere

In any given volume of air, nitrogen accounts for 78 percent of the gases that comprise the atmosphere, while oxygen makes up 21 percent. Argon, carbon dioxide, and traces of other gases make up the remaining one percent. This volume of air also contains some water vapor, varying from zero to about five percent by volume. This small amount of water vapor is responsible for major changes in the weather. [Figure 1]
Atmosphere, weather theory for aircraft flying
Figure 1. Composition of the atmosphere
The envelope of gases surrounding the Earth changes from the ground up. Four distinct layers or spheres of the atmosphere have been identified using thermal characteristics (temperature changes), chemical composition, movement, and density. [Figure 2]
Atmosphere, weather theory for aircraft flying
Figure 2. Layers of the atmosphere
The first layer, known as the troposphere, extends from 6 to 20 kilometers (km) (4 to 12 miles) over the northern and southern poles and up to 48,000 feet (14.5 km) over the equatorial regions. The vast majority of weather, clouds, storms, and temperature variances occur within this first layer of the atmosphere. Inside the troposphere, the average temperature decreases at a rate of about 2 °Celsius (C) every 1,000 feet of altitude gain, and the pressure decreases at a rate of about one inch per 1,000 feet of altitude gain.

At the top of the troposphere is a boundary known as the tropopause, which traps moisture and the associated weather in the troposphere. The altitude of the tropopause varies with latitude and with the season of the year; therefore, it takes on an elliptical shape as opposed to round. Location of the tropopause is important because it is commonly associated with the location of the jet stream and possible clear air turbulence.
Above the tropopause are three more atmospheric levels. The first is the stratosphere, which extends from the tropopause to a height of about 160,000 feet (50 km). Little weather exists in this layer and the air remains stable, although certain types of clouds occasionally extend in it. Above the stratosphere are the mesosphere and thermosphere, which have little influence over weather.

Atmospheric Circulation

As noted earlier, the atmosphere is in constant motion. Certain factors combine to set the atmosphere in motion, but a major factor is the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface. This heating upsets the equilibrium of the atmosphere, creating changes in air movement and atmospheric pressure. The movement of air around the surface of the Earth is called atmospheric circulation.
Heating of the Earth’s surface is accomplished by several processes, but in the simple convection-only model used for this discussion, the Earth is warmed by energy radiating from the sun. The process causes a circular motion that results when warm air rises and is replaced by cooler air.
Warm air rises because heat causes air molecules to spread apart. As the air expands, it becomes less dense and lighter than the surrounding air. As air cools, the molecules pack together more closely, becoming denser and heavier than warm air. As a result, cool, heavy air tends to sink and replace warmer, rising air.
Because the Earth has a curved surface that rotates on a tilted axis while orbiting the sun, the equatorial regions of the Earth receive a greater amount of heat from the sun than the polar regions. The amount of solar energy that heats the Earth depends on the time of year and the latitude of the specific region. All of these factors affect the length of time and the angle at which sunlight strikes the surface.
Atmosphere, weather theory for aircraft flying
Figure 3. Circulation pattern in a static environment
Solar heating causes higher temperatures in equatorial areas, which causes the air to be less dense and rise. As the warm air flows toward the poles, it cools, becoming denser and sinks back toward the surface. [Figure 3]

Atmospheric Pressure

The unequal heating of the Earth’s surface not only modifies air density and creates circulation patterns; it also causes changes in air pressure or the force exerted by the weight of air molecules. Although air molecules are invisible, they still have weight and take up space.
Imagine a sealed column of air that has a footprint of one square inch and is 350 miles high. It would take 14.7 pounds of effort to lift that column. This represents the air’s weight; if the column is shortened, the pressure exerted at the bottom (and its weight) would be less.
The weight of the shortened column of air at 18,000 feet is approximately 7.4 pounds; almost 50 percent that at sea level. For instance, if a bathroom scale (calibrated for sea level) were raised to 18,000 feet, the column of air weighing 14.7 pounds at sea level would be 18,000 feet shorter and would weigh approximately 7.3 pounds (50 percent) less than at sea level. [Figure 4]
Atmosphere, weather theory for aircraft flying
Figure 4. Atmosphere weights
The actual pressure at a given place and time differs with altitude, temperature, and density of the air. These conditions also affect aircraft performance, especially with regard to takeoff, rate of climb, and landings.