Weather patterns on planet Earth, the everyday conditions experienced by plants and animals, are the product of a complex set of factors that work together and against each other to produce certain results. For centuries men and women fascinated by weather have tried to forecast conditions for the following day or the next week. Efforts have been made to put together long-range plans for precipitation and temperature for a year or more in the future. Fortunately, in recent years, advancement in computer technology and measuring devices has allowed more accurate weather prediction than ever before. Along with a greater understanding of the laws of physics, human beings have benefited from information gathered by weather satellites.
The mass of information from these orbiting recording stations is now more efficiently handled by the powerful computers assembled for just this task. Add to this the dozens of specialized aircraft, ships and remote reporting stations and scientists are beginning to understand just what creates Earth's unique climate conditions. But what have human beings learned from all of this measurement and observation? One of the key facts uncovered is that the atmosphere that sustains life on Earth is an amazingly thin layer of protection.
Yet this thin layer is actually composed of several distinct layers, five that we are aware of so far. The first was identified as recently as 1899. While there are five separate pieces to the atmospheric puzzle, the level closest to Earth is the breeding ground for nearly all the weather.
The troposphere literally starts at ground level and extends up to 10 miles above the Earth's surface. Careful study and observation indicate that this layer is thinnest near the North Pole and South Pole, while it extends almost twice as high at the equator. Meteorologists and other scientists working in this specialized field have found that, in the troposphere, temperatures gradually decrease with altitude (4 degrees for each 1,000 feet). At the outer edge of this first layer, where temperatures can be as low as -70 degrees (Fahrenheit) the boundary is called the tropopause.
Beyond this life-sustaining layer is the stratosphere, which reaches to an altitude of about 30 miles. Temperatures change drastically through this level, increasing 40 degrees or more in some cases. Scientists have also found that the protective ozone layer so familiar to most people, is located in the stratosphere (about 15 miles above the Earth's surface). Beyond these first two levels are: the mesosphere - this layer extends about 50 miles above the surface; the thermosphere or ionosphere, where temperatures can be close to 3,000 degrees.
It is interesting to note that this layer provides a lot of protection for life on Earth, usually burning up meteors and other objects that pass through. At the far reaches of the known levels is the exosphere, composed of different kinds of gases that often escape into what is commonly known as outer space. Even with the best measuring instruments, accurate weather predication and observation would not be possible without cooperation from the various countries around the world.
Weather systems and huge air masses move around the globe and it is important for observers to know about conditions in other regions. One result of this cooperation is the World Meteorological Organization, formed more than 50 years ago to build a weather database on a global scale. Just as the layers of the atmosphere work together to sustain life on Earth, nations of the world work together to continue learning about Earth's weather.
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