National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

Introduction to the Atmosphere

The atmosphere is a cloud of gas and suspended solids extending from the Earth's surface out many thousands of miles, becoming increasingly thinner with distance but always held by the Earth's gravitational pull.

The atmosphere surrounds the Earth and holds the air we breathe; it protects us from outer space; and holds moisture (clouds), gases, and tiny particles. In short, the atmosphere is the protective bubble in which we live.

Chemical makeup of the atmosphere
EXCLUDING water vapor
Gas Symbol Content
Nitrogen N2 78.084% 99.998%
Oxygen O2 20.947%
Argon Ar 0.934%
Carbon dioxide CO2 0.035%
Neon Ne 18.182 parts per million
Helium He 5.24 parts per million
Methane CH4 1.70 parts per million
Krypton Kr 1.14 parts per million
Hydrogen H2 0.53 parts per million
Nitrous oxide N2O 0.31 parts per million
Carbon monoxide CO 0.10 parts per million
Xenon Xe 0.09 parts per million
Ozone O3 0.07 parts per million
Nitrogen dioxide NO2 0.02 parts per million
Iodine I2 0.01 parts per million
Ammonia NH3 trace

This protective bubble consists of several gases (listed in the table to the right) with the top four making up 99.998% of all gases. Of the dry composition of the atmosphere nitrogen, by far, is the most common. Nitrogen dilutes oxygen and prevents rapid burning at the Earth's surface. Living things need it to make proteins.

Oxygen is used by all living things and is essential for respiration. It is also necessary for combustion or burning.

Argon is used in light bulbs, in double-pane windows, and used to preserve the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Plants use carbon dioxide to make oxygen. Carbon dioxide also acts as a blanket that prevents the escape of heat into outer space.

These percentages of atmospheric gases are for a completely dry atmosphere. The atmosphere is rarely, if ever, dry. Water vapor (water in a 'gas' state) is nearly always present up to about 4% of the total volume.

Chemical makeup of the atmosphere
INCLUDING water vapor
Water Vapor Nitrogen Oxygen Argon
0% 78.084% 20.947% 0.934%
1% 77.30% 20.70% 0.92%
2% 76.52% 20.53% 0.91%
3% 75.74% 20.32% 0.90%
4% 74.96% 20.11% 0.89%

In the Earth's desert regions (30°N/S) when dry winds are blowing, the water vapor contribution to the composition of the atmosphere will be near zero.

Water vapor contribution climbs to near 3% on extremely hot/humid days. The upper limit, approaching 4%, is found in tropical climates. The table (above) shows the changes in atmospheric composition with the inclusion of different amounts of water vapor.