Earth’s Upper Atmosphere is Cooling

New measurements from a NASA satellite show a dramatic cooling in the upper atmosphere that correlates with the declining activity of the current solar cycle. For the first time, researchers can show a timely link between the Sun and the climate of Earth’s thermosphere, the region above 100 km, an essential step in making accurate predictions of climate change in the high atmosphere. This finding also correlates with a fundamental prediction of climate change theory that says the upper atmosphere will cool in response to increasing carbon dioxide.

Earth’s thermosphere and mesosphere have been the least explored regions of the atmosphere, in fact some have called it the “ignorosphere.” The NASA Thermosphere-Ionosphere-Mesosphere Energetics and Dynamics (TIMED) mission was developed to explore the Earth’s atmosphere above 60 km altitude and was launched in December 2001. One of four instruments on the TIMED mission, the Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) instrument, was specifically designed to measure the energy budget of the mesosphere and lower thermosphere. The SABER dataset now covers eight years of data and has already provided some basic insight into the heat budget of the thermosphere on a variety of timescales.

The extent of current solar minimum conditions has created a unique situation for recent SABER datasets. The end of solar cycle 23 has offered an opportunity to study the radiative cooling in the thermosphere under exceptionally quiescent conditions.

“The Sun is in a very unusual period,” said Marty Mlynczak, SABER associate principal investigator and senior research scientist at NASA Langley. “The Earth’s thermosphere is responding remarkably — up to an order of magnitude decrease in infrared emission/radiative cooling by some molecules.”

The TIMED measurements show a decrease in the amount of ultraviolet radiation emitted by the Sun. In addition, the amount of infrared radiation emitted from the upper atmosphere by nitric oxide molecules has decreased by nearly a factor of 10 since early 2002. These observations imply that the upper atmosphere has cooled substantially since then. The research team expects the atmosphere to heat up again as solar activity starts to pick up in the next year.

While this warming has no implications for climate change in the troposphere, a fundamental prediction of climate change theory is that the upper atmosphere will cool in response to increasing carbon dioxide. Emissions of carbon dioxide may warm the lower atmosphere, but they cool the upper atmosphere, because of the density of the atmospheric layer.

As the atmosphere cools the density will increase, which ultimately may impact satellite operations through increased drag over time.

The SABER dataset is the first global, long-term, and continuous record of the Nitric oxide (NO) and Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the thermosphere.

“We suggest that the dataset of radiative cooling of the thermosphere by NO and CO2 constitutes a first climate data record for the thermosphere,” says Mlynczak.

The TIMED data provide a fundamental climate data record for validation of upper atmosphere climate models which is an essential step in making accurate predictions of climate change in the high atmosphere. SABER provides the first long-term measurements of natural variability in key terms of the upper atmosphere climate. As the TIMED mission continues, these data derived from SABER will become important in assessing long term changes due to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The findings were presented at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting in San Francisco.

Source: NASA Langley

Earth’s Atmosphere Came from Outer Space

[/caption]

A new study finds the gases which formed the Earth’s atmosphere – as well as its oceans – did not come from inside the Earth but from comets and meteorites hitting Earth during the Late Heavy Bombardment period. A research team tested volcanic gases to uncover the new evidence. “We found a clear meteorite signature in volcanic gases,” said Dr. Greg Holland the project’s lead scientist. “From that we now know that the volcanic gases could not have contributed in any significant way to the Earth’s atmosphere. Therefore the atmosphere and oceans must have come from somewhere else, possibly from a late bombardment of gas and water rich materials similar to comets.”

Holland said textbook images of ancient Earth with huge volcanoes spewing gas into the atmosphere will have to be rethought.

According to the theory of the Late Heavy Bombardment, the inner solar system was pounded by a sudden rain of solar system debris only 700 million years after it formed, which likely had monumental effects on the nascent Earth. So far, the evidence for this event comes primarily from the dating of lunar samples, which indicates that most impact melt rocks formed in this very narrow interval of time. But this new research on the origin of Earth’s atmosphere may lend credence to this theory as well.

The researchers analyzed the krypton and xenon found in upper-mantle gases leaking from the Bravo Dome gas field in New Mexico. They found that the two noble gases have isotopic signatures characteristic of early Solar System material similar to me teorites instead of the modern atmosphere and oceans. It therefore appears that noble gases trapped within the young Earth did not contribute to Earth’s later atmosphere.
The study is also the first to establish the precise composition of the Krypton present in the Earth’s mantle.

“Until now, no one has had instruments capable of looking for these subtle signatures in samples from inside the Earth – but now we can do exactly that,” said Holland.

The team’s research, “Meteorite Kr in Earth’s Mantle Suggests a Late Accretionary Source for the Atmosphere” was published in the journal Science.

Sources: Science, EurekAlert

Exosphere

[/caption]
The Earth’s atmosphere is broken up into several distinct layers. We live down in the troposphere, where the atmosphere is thickest. Above that is the stratosphere, then there’s the mesosphere, thermosphere and finally the exosphere. The top of the exosphere marks the line between the Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

The exosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. It starts at an altitude of about 500 km and goes out to about 10,000 km. Within this region particles of atmosphere can travel for hundreds of kilometers in a ballistic trajectory before bumping into any other particles of the atmosphere. Particles escape out of the exosphere into deep space.

The lower boundary of the exosphere, where it interacts with the thermosphere is called the thermopause. It starts at an altitude of about 250-500 km, but its height depends on the amount of solar activity. Below the thermopause, particles of the atmosphere have atomic collisions, like what you might find in a balloon. But above the thermopause, this switches over to purely ballistic collisions.

The theoretical top boundary of the exosphere is 190,000 km (half way to the Moon). This is the point at which the solar radiation coming from the Sun overcomes the Earth’s gravitational pull on the atmospheric particles. This has been detected to about 100,000 km from the surface of the Earth. Most scientists consider 10,000 km to be the official boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and interplanetary space.

We have written several articles about the Earth’s atmosphere for Universe Today. Here’s an article about an evaporating extrasolar planet, and this article explains how far away space is.

You can learn more about the layers of the atmosphere, including the exosphere from this page at NASA.

We have recorded a whole episode of Astronomy Cast talking about the Earth’s (and it’s atmosphere). Check it out here, Episode 51: Earth.

Atmosphere Layers

Atmosphere layers. Image credit: NASA

[/caption]
Seen from space, the Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly thin, like a slight haze around the planet. But the atmosphere has several different layers that scientists have identified; from the thick atmosphere that we breathe to the tenuous exosphere that extends out thousands of kilometers from the Earth. Let’s take a look at the different atmosphere layers.

Scientists have identified 5 distinct layers of the atmosphere, starting with the thickest near the surface, and then thinning out until it eventually merges with space.

The troposphere is the first layer above the surface of the Earth, and it contains 75% of the Earth’s atmosphere, and 99% of its water. Breathe in, that’s the troposphere. The average depth of the troposphere is about 17 km high. It gets deeper in the tropical regions, up to 20 km, and then shallower near the Earth’s poles – down to 7 km thick. Temperature and pressure are at the their highest at sea level, and then decrease with altitude. The troposphere is also where we experience weather.

The next atmosphere layer is the stratosphere, extending above the troposphere to an altitude of 51 km. Unlike the troposphere, temperature actually increases with height. Commercial airlines will typically fly in the stratosphere because it’s very stable; above weather, and allows them to optimize burning jet fuel. You might be surprised to know that bacterial life survives in the stratosphere.

Above that is the mesosphere, which starts at about 50-85 km above the Earth’s surface and extends up to an altitude of 80-90 km. Temperatures decrease the higher you go in the mesosphere, reaching a low of -100 °C, depending on the latitude and season.

Next comes the thermosphere. This region starts around 90 km above the Earth and goes up to about 320 and 380 km. The International Space Station orbits within the thermosphere. This is the region of the atmosphere where ultraviolet radiation causes ionization, and we can see auroras. Temperatures in the thermosphere can actually reach 2,500 °C; however, it wouldn’t feel warm because the atmosphere is so thin.

The 5th and final layer of the Earth’s atmosphere is the exosphere. This starts above the thermosphere and extends out for hundreds and even thousands of kilometers. Air molecules in this region can travel for hundreds of kilometers without bouncing into another particle.

We have written many articles about the Earth’s atmosphere for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, and here’s information about the Earth’s early atmosphere.

Here’s a great article from NASA that explains the different layers of the atmosphere, and here’s more information from NOAA.

We have done a whole episode of Astronomy Cast just about Earth. Listen to it here, Episode 51 – Earth.