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Space Shuttle Endeavour sillouetted against the atmosphere. The orange layer is the troposphere, the white layer is the stratosphere and the blue layer the mesosphere.[1] (The shuttle is actually orbiting at an altitude of more than 200 miles, far above all three layers.)
Earth atmosphere diagram showing the exosphere and other layers. The layers are to scale. From Earth's surface to the top of the stratosphere (50km) is just under 1% of Earth's radius.

The troposphere is the lowest portion of Earth's atmosphere. It contains approximately 80% of the atmosphere's mass and 99% of its water vapour and aerosols.[2] The average depth of the troposphere is approximately Template:Convert in the middle latitudes. It is deeper in the tropics, up to Template:Convert, and shallower near the polar regions, approximately Template:Convert in winter. The lowest part of the troposphere, where friction with the Earth's surface influences air flow, is the planetary boundary layer. This layer is typically a few hundred meters to Template:Convert deep depending on the landform and time of day. The border between the troposphere and stratosphere, called the tropopause, is a temperature inversion.[3]

The word troposphere derives from the Greek: tropos{{#invoke:Category handler|main}} for "change" reflecting the fact that turbulent mixing plays an important role in the troposphere's structure and behaviour. Most of the phenomena we associate with day-to-day weather occur in the troposphere.[3]

Pressure and temperature structure

A view of Earth's troposphere from an airplane.
Atmospheric circulation shown with three large cells.


The chemical composition of the troposphere is essentially uniform, with the notable exception of water vapor. The source of water vapour is at the surface through the processes of evaporation and transpiration. Furthermore the temperature of the troposphere decreases with height, and saturation vapor pressure decreases strongly as temperature drops, so the amount of water vapor that can exist in the atmosphere decreases strongly with height. Thus the proportion of water vapour is normally greatest near the surface and decreases with height.


The pressure of the atmosphere is maximum at sea level and decreases with higher altitude. This is because the atmosphere is very nearly in hydrostatic equilibrium, so that the pressure is equal to the weight of air above a given point. The change in pressure with height, therefore can be equated to the density with this hydrostatic equation:[4]


Since temperature in principle also depends on altitude, one needs a second equation to determine the pressure as a function of height, as discussed in the next section.*


File:Troposphere Temperature Trend1.jpg
This image shows the temperature trend in the Middle Troposphere as measured by a series of satellite-based instruments between January 1979 and December 2005. The middle troposphere is centered around 5 kilometers above the surface. Oranges and yellows dominate the troposphere image, indicating that the air nearest the Earth’s surface warmed during the period.Source: [1]

The temperature of the troposphere generally decreases as altitude increases. The rate at which the temperature decreases, , is called the environmental lapse rate (ELR). The ELR is nothing more than the difference in temperature between the surface and the tropopause divided by the height. The reason for this temperature difference is that most absorption of the sun's energy occurs at the ground which then heats the lower levels of the atmosphere, and the radiation of heat occurs at the top of the atmosphere cooling the earth, this process maintaining the overall heat balance of the earth.

As parcels of air in the atmosphere rise and fall, they also undergo changes in temperature for reasons described below. The rate of change of the temperature in the parcel may be less than or more than the ELR. When a parcel of air rises, it expands, because the pressure is lower at higher altitudes. As the air parcel expands, it pushes on the air around it, doing work; but generally it does not gain heat in exchange from its environment, because its thermal conductivity is low (such a process is called adiabatic). Since the parcel does work and gains no heat, it loses energy, and so its temperature decreases. (The reverse, of course, will be true for a sinking parcel of air.) [3]

Since the heat exchanged is related to the entropy change by , the equation governing the temperature as a function of height for a thoroughly mixed atmosphere is

where S is the entropy. The rate at which temperature decreases with height under such conditions is called the adiabatic lapse rate.

For dry air, which is approximately an ideal gas, we can proceed further. The adiabatic equation for an ideal gas is [5]

where is the heat capacity ratio (=7/5, for air). Combining with the equation for the pressure, one arrives at the dry adiabatic lapse rate,[6]

If the air contains water vapor, then cooling of the air can cause the water to condense, and the behavior is no longer that of an ideal gas. If the air is at the saturated vapor pressure, then the rate at which temperature drops with height is called the saturated adiabatic lapse rate. More generally, the actual rate at which the temperature drops with altitude is called the environmental lapse rate. In the troposphere, the average environmental lapse rate is a drop of about 6.5 °C for every 1 km (1,000 meters) in increased height.[3]

The environmental lapse rate (the actual rate at which temperature drops with height, ) is not usually equal to the adiabatic lapse rate (or correspondingly, ). If the upper air is warmer than predicted by the adiabatic lapse rate (), then when a parcel of air rises and expands, it will arrive at the new height at a lower temperature than its surroundings. In this case, the air parcel is denser than its surroundings, so it sinks back to its original height, and the air is stable against being lifted. If, on the contrary, the upper air is cooler than predicted by the adiabatic lapse rate, then when the air parcel rises to its new height it will have a higher temperature and a lower density than its surroundings, and will continue to accelerate upward.[3][4]

The troposphere is heated from below by latent heat, longwave radiation, and sensible heat. Surplus heating and vertical expansion of the troposphere occurs in the tropics. At middle latitudes, tropospheric temperatures decrease from an average of 15°C at sea level to about -55°C at the tropopause. At the poles, tropospheric temperature only decreases from an average of 0ºC at sea level to about -45°C at the tropopause. At the equator, tropospheric temperatures decrease from an average of 20ºC at sea level to about -70 to -75°C at the tropopause. The troposphere is thinner at the poles and thicker at the equator. The average thickness of the tropical tropopause is roughly 7 kilometers greater than the average tropopause thickness at the poles. [7]



The tropopause is the boundary region between the troposphere and the stratosphere.

Measuring the temperature change with height through the troposphere and the stratosphere identifies the location of the tropopause. In the troposphere, temperature decreases with altitude. In the stratosphere, however, the temperature remains constant for a while and then increases with altitude. The region of the atmosphere where the lapse rate changes from positive (in the troposphere) to negative (in the stratosphere), is defined as the tropopause.[3] Thus, the tropopause is an inversion layer, and there is little mixing between the two layers of the atmosphere.

Atmospheric flow

The flow of the atmosphere generally moves in a west to east direction. This, however, can often become interrupted, creating a more north to south or south to north flow. These scenarios are often described in meteorology as zonal or meridional. These terms, however, tend to be used in reference to localised areas of atmosphere (at a synoptic scale). A fuller explanation of the flow of atmosphere around the Earth as a whole can be found in the three-cell model.

Zonal Flow

A zonal flow regime is the meteorological term meaning that the general flow pattern is west to east along the Earth's latitude lines, with weak shortwaves embedded in the flow.[7] The use of the word "zone" refers to the flow being along the Earth's latitudinal "zones". This pattern can buckle and thus become a meridional flow.

Meridional flow

Meridional Flow pattern of October 23, 2003. Note the amplified troughs and ridges in this 500 hPa height pattern.

When the zonal flow buckles, the atmosphere can flow in a more longitudinal (or meridional) direction, and thus the term "meridional flow" arises. Meridional flow patterns feature strong, amplified troughs and ridges, with more north-south flow in the general pattern than west-to-east flow.[8]

Three-cell model


The three cells model attempts to describe the actual flow of the Earth's atmosphere as a whole. It divides the Earth into the tropical (Hadley cell), mid latitude (Ferrel cell), and polar (polar cell) regions, dealing with energy flow and global circulation. Its fundamental principle is that of balance - the energy that the Earth absorbs from the sun each year is equal to that which it loses back into space, but this however is not a balance precisely maintained in each latitude due to the varying strength of the sun in each "cell" resulting from the tilt of the Earth's axis in relation to its orbit. It demonstrates that a pattern emerges to mirror that of the ocean - the tropics do not continue to get warmer because the atmosphere transports warm air poleward and cold air equatorward, the effect of which appears to be that of heat and moisture distribution around the planet.[9]

Synoptic scale observations and concepts


Forcing is a term used by meteorologists to describe the situation where a change or an event in one part of the atmosphere causes a strengthening change in another part of the atmosphere. It is usually used to describe connections between upper, middle or lower levels (such as upper-level divergence causing lower level convergence in cyclone formation), but can sometimes also be used to describe such connections over distance rather than height alone. In some respects, teleconnections could be considered a type of forcing.

Divergence and convergence

An area of convergence is one in which the total mass of air is increasing with time, resulting in an increase in pressure at locations below the convergence level (recall that atmospheric pressure is just the total weight of air above a given point). Divergence is the opposite of convergence - an area where the total mass of air is decreasing with time, resulting in falling pressure in regions below the area of divergence. Where divergence is occurring in the upper atmosphere, there will be air coming in to try to balance the net loss of mass (this is called the principle of mass conservation), and there is a resulting upward motion (positive vertical velocity). Another way to state this is to say that regions of upper air divergence are conducive to lower level convergence, cyclone formation, and positive vertical velocity. Therefore, identifying regions of upper air divergence is an important step in forecasting the formation of a surface low pressure area.


  1. Template:Cite web
  2. McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Science & Technology. (1984). Troposphere. "It contains about four-fifths of the mass of the whole atmosphere."
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Danielson, Levin, and Abrams, Meteorology, McGraw Hill, 2003
  4. 4.0 4.1 Landau and Lifshitz, Fluid Mechanics, Pergamon, 1979
  5. Landau and Lifshitz, Statistical Physics Part 1, Pergamon, 1980
  6. Kittel and Kroemer, Thermal Physics, Freeman, 1980; chapter 6, problem 11
  7. 7.0 7.1 Template:Cite web Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ZonalFlowDef" defined multiple times with different content
  8. Template:Cite web
  9. Template:Cite web

External links

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