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Atmosphere

Gaseous envelope
Written by: Roger A. Pielke, Sr.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction
Surface budgets
Vertical structure of the atmosphere
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Troposphere
Stratosphere and mesosphere
Thermosphere
Magnetosphere and exosphere

Horizontal structure of the atmosphere


Cloud processes
Measurement systems
The atmospheres of other planets

PLANETARY BOUNDARY LAYER


The lower levels of the troposphere are usually strongly influenced by Earths surface.
This sublayer, known as the planetary boundary layer, is that region of the atmosphere
in which the surface influences temperature, moisture, and wind velocity through the
turbulent transfer of mass. As a result of surface friction, winds in the planetary
boundary layer are usually weaker than above and tend to blow toward areas of low
pressure. For this reason, the planetary boundary layer has also been called an Ekman
layer, for Swedish oceanographer Vagn Walfrid Ekman, a pioneer in the study of the

behaviour of wind-driven ocean currents.


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Under clear, sunny skies over land, the planetary boundary layer tends to be relatively
deep as a result of the heating of the ground by the Sun and the resultant generation of
convective turbulence. During the summer, the planetary boundary layer can reach
heights of 1 to 1.5 km (0.6 to 1 mile) above the land surfacefor example, in the humid
eastern United Statesand up to 5 km (3 miles) in the southwestern desert. Under
these conditions, when unsaturated air rises and expands, the temperature decreases
at the dry adiabatic lapse rate (9.8 C per kilometre, or roughly 23 F per mile)
throughout most of the boundary layer. Near Earths heated surface, air temperature
decreases superadiabatically (at a lapse rate greater than the dry adiabatic lapse rate).
In contrast, during clear, calm nights, turbulence tends to cease, and radiational cooling
(net loss of heat) from the surface results in an air temperature that increases with
height above the surface.
When the rate of temperature decrease with height exceeds the adiabatic lapse rate for
a region of the atmosphere, turbulence is generated. This is due to the convective
overturn of the air as the warmer lower-level air rises and mixes with the cooler air aloft.

In this situation, since the environmental lapse rate is greater than the adiabatic lapse
rate, an ascending parcel of air remains warmer than the surrounding ambient air even
though the parcel is both cooling and expanding. Evidence of this overturn is produced
in the form of bubbles, or eddies, of warmer air. The larger bubbles often have sufficient
buoyant energy to penetrate the top of the boundary layer. The subsequent rapid air
displacement brings air from aloft into the boundary layer, thereby deepening the layer.
Under these conditions of atmospheric instability, the air aloft cools according to the
environmental lapse rate faster than the rising air is cooling at the adiabatic lapse rate.
The air above the boundary layer replaces the rising air and undergoes compressional
warming as it descends. As a result, this entrained air heats the boundary layer.
The ability of the convective bubbles to break through the top of the boundary layer
depends on the environmental lapse rate aloft. The upward movement of penetrative
bubbles will decrease rapidly if the parcel quickly becomes cooler than the ambient
environment that surrounds it. In this situation, the air parcel will become less buoyant
with additional ascent. The height that the boundary layer attains on a sunny day,
therefore, is strongly influenced by the intensity of surface heating and the
environmental lapse rate just above the boundary layer. The more rapidly a rising
turbulent bubble cools above the boundary layer relative to the surrounding air, the
lower the chance that subsequent turbulent bubbles will penetrate far above the
boundary layer. The top of the daytime boundary layer is referred to as the mixed-layer
inversion.
On clear, calm nights, radiational cooling results in a temperature increase with height.
In this situation, known as a nocturnal inversion, turbulence is suppressed by the strong
thermal stratification. Thermally stable conditions occur when warmer air overlies cooler,
denser air. Over flat terrain, a nearly laminar wind flow (a pattern where winds from an
upper layer easily slide past winds from a lower layer) can result. The depth of the
radiationally cooled layer of air depends on a variety of factors, such as the moisture
content of the air, soil and vegetation characteristics, and terrain configuration. In a
desert environment, for instance, the nocturnal inversion tends to be found at greater
heights than in a more humid environment. The inversion in more humid environments
occurs at a lower altitude because more long-wave radiation emitted by the surface is
absorbed by numerous available water molecules and reemitted back toward the
surface. As a result, the lower levels of the troposphere are prevented from cooling

rapidly. If the air is moist and sufficient near-surface cooling occurs, water vapour will
condense into what is called radiation fog.